About Jamal Sanders '20

Jamal Sanders was originally drawn to a bachelor’s program in the nutrition sciences for personal and professional reasons. 

On the personal side, he knew the field would help him better understand how he might address health issues like high blood pressure, which he said is a concern in his own family and in the Black community. 

And on the professional side, it would allow him to combine several interests: research, education, public health, and, especially, technology.

Sanders, who earned a master’s degree in Applied Nutrition at Russell Sage College in 2020, has been a nutritionist with the New York State Department of Health since 2017. He works in the information systems management section within the Bureau of Supplemental Foods Program, Division of Nutrition. His bureau oversees the supplemental nutrition program commonly known as WIC, which provides nutrition-related benefits to pregnant women, mothers, infants, and children.   

His responsibilities involve managing data and reports, supporting state employees seeking specific WIC-related data, and user-acceptance testing (User-acceptance testing is the penultimate stage of software development, when real users test a product to make sure it works.) 

For example, during the widespread infant formula shortage in 2022, Sanders collaborated on a formula usage report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

“That report enabled federal investigators to analyze formula issuances and see where the supply chain had been most affected,” he said. “This also allowed state staff to customize guidance for WIC local agencies issuing formulas during the shortages.”

He is also part of testing and training during critical software rollouts in his bureau. “The goal is to ensure business questions and other health-related data requests are accurate.” 

When Sanders began considering a master’s degree, RSC’s presence on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics list of accredited programs caught his eye, and he reached out to Sonya Hauser, associate Nutrition professor and graduate program director. 

“We kept in touch for years before I enrolled at Sage,” he said, “and she always replied to my questions.” The Applied Nutrition program’s emphasis on research also appealed to him. “When the time came to make the investment, Sage was the clear choice.” 

As he expected, the research aspect was a highlight of graduate school and became an advantage in his work. 

For his thesis, Sanders, along with faculty mentors and fellow student-researchers, investigated the experiences of breastfeeding mothers and the reasons they stopped breastfeeding. After almost 2,000 women responded to the team’s survey, Sanders took what he learned about survey design and applied it to a WIC project, assessing gaps in software training. 

“Applying the techniques from my master’s thesis research project, I developed, refined, collected, and validated survey data,” he said. “Subsequently, I designed a series of training videos that were delivered to over 100 New York state employees.” 

While most of Sanders’ work supports state employees, he never forgets the individuals who rely on WIC benefits. 

He described participating in a meeting with a WIC recipient at a clinic, who seemed hesitant to share her experiences. When he asked, “Are you hungry right now?,”  she said, “Yes.”

“The woman not only received her benefit issuance, but also a hearty meal on the spot,” Sanders said. “While WIC’s primary purpose is to reduce risks for women, infants, and children, this woman’s story stands as a testament to the power of programs like WIC as a critical factor for improving food security. It has been a privilege to address this both at the clinic and indirectly at the data management level.”

”What I particularly enjoy is that I have the opportunity to advocate from two distinct perspectives,” he continued. “One perspective stems from my background as a Black kid from a small town with limited opportunities, while the other leverages my adult training and experience to make a meaningful difference.”

He added that he is proud of the proactive measures New York state and WIC agencies took to minimize disruptions to WIC during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The agencies offered virtual appointments, issued benefits remotely, and provided online nutrition education, while the state provided guidance and policy adjustments in the oversight of WIC business. 

With his master’s degree completed and life settling into a new normal after the initial disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanders has started to contemplate his next professional milestone. 

His current position is contractual, but his work experience and master’s degree have made him eligible for several professional career opportunities through the New York State Department of Civil Service. He’s looking at roles as a food programs evaluation specialist, program research specialist, and food laboratory specialist, as well as opportunities outside of state government that require skills in data and information management. 

“I feel very hopeful and ready for the next piece,” he said. 

"In the M.S. Applied Nutrition program, the standout benefit for me was the opportunity to undertake a yearlong research project. ... The culmination of this experience was the hands-on research opportunity, which I found to be most beneficial. Not only did I have the chance to work on a real research project, but this has also become the focal point of my resume for research experience."

Jamal Sanders '20