Nutrition, service and lessons of public health drive, motivate SPH honors graduate in her work


Published: May 25, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Joanna Li 2021Working as a Public Health Nutritionist in the Greater New York area is a big job. School of Public Health (SPH) 2021 honors graduate Joanna Li understands the job well from experience, having spent three years traveling through different boroughs and neighborhoods to deliver nutrition counseling and services to women and children.

Li worked through a program called WIC, short for the federally-funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children that assists low-income pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and children under age 5. State and county health departments are partners in this program.

Over time, Li’s position grew to support 10 area WIC programs, where she evaluated programming, led trainings and helped introduce a new system for monthly payment processing, moving from paper vouchers to debit cards.

With an undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetic experience working in a large hospital system, Li remembers reflecting at the time on how much the WIC program and her department’s work impacted large populations of families in need.

Transportation, access to nutritious foods near their home and so many other issues influenced the overall health of not just individuals but entire communities.

It was an aha moment where Li realized, “Yes, I’m in public health.”

This year, Li was awarded the SPH Leon Brachman Community Service Award, presented to the graduating public health student best exemplifying the ideals of academic excellence, leadership and community service.

The award is named for Fort Worth philanthropist Leon Brachman, who was a member of the 1992 steering committee that first explored development of a local School of Public Health, leading to founding of the SPH at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) in 1999.

Li grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the Fort Worth area several years ago. She had planned to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree online, but chose the on-campus experience and MPH in Public Health Leadership program instead after visiting HSC.

During her time with the SPH, Li worked as a graduate assistant in the Office of Academic Services and volunteered with the Tarrant Area Food Bank. She has served as Treasurer for the HSC Public Health Student Minority Association (PHMA) and as a Student Assembly Membership Ambassador for the American Public Health Association (APHA). She is a Board member and current Communications Co-Chair for the Dallas Dietetic Alliance. Recently, Li has also begun volunteering with the North Texas Community Table Food Pantry, helping to sort food donations and prepare distributions for local families.

Li has always had an interest in food insecurity, hunger, the issues that affect nutrition and helping people improve their overall health. Public health provided her that avenue in a broader way than one-on-one nutrition counseling or client services could.

“A lot of things influence what a person eats,” she said. “Recommending a diet of fruits, vegetables and other nutritious items is one thing, but if people don’t have access to those foods in their neighborhood, can’t get to stores because of transportation or other reasons, such as balancing time to work more than one job supporting a family, it can present real barriers.”

“Understanding what you should eat and actually being able to get those things can be quite different.”

Being in public health and wanting to serve the community while trying to stay safe during the pandemic has been hard, Li said, and she’s happy now for the light at the end of the tunnel.

She was able this past year to continue her SPH practice experience with the North Texas Area Community Health Centers remotely, developing and conducting a survey for pre-diabetic patients, which resulted in development of a diabetes prevention curriculum that health care providers can now use.

“During the pandemic, I learned to be adaptable, which is a pretty good skill to have,” she said. “Being away from family was probably the most difficult of all, but we managed to stay close through Facetime, showing me how precious every moment really is and how much those moments should be taken to heart.”

“I think all of us, in our personal lives, professional endeavors and service to the community, learned a lot about what is most important to us and what drives us forward,” she said. “If anything, this last year of living and working within the pandemic has made us all stronger.”