June 4, 2020

Cohort Spotlight: Carly Hegarty on Guiding Consumer Environmental Health During a Pandemic

IFSL Program Cohort Spotlight: Carly Hegarty

When a pandemic hits, local food safety inspectors suddenly find themselves at the center. That’s been true for Carly Hegarty, Director of Consumer Environmental Health for the Milwaukee Health Department. Carly is a member of the inaugural Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) cohort. We spoke with her about her experience in the IFSL program and how it is shaping her response to the pandemic.

What is your current professional role, and how is the pandemic impacting your work?

I oversee the Consumer Environmental Health Division for the Milwaukee Health Department. We inspect food establishments, mobile food trucks, temporary events, tattoo and body art facilities, and weights and measures related establishments. Additionally we assist with outbreak investigations. Now, our staff are essential boots on the ground for the pandemic response. 

Restaurant owners are reaching out to us to find out how they can keep their customers safe in response to Covid in addition to the food safety protocols they are also held to. Many of my inspectors are focusing their efforts on performing food safety inspections, complaint investigations and consultations with operators on their physical distancing practices and safety measures.

Additionally, our staff have been trained in contact tracing of ill or potentially ill individuals and environmental cleaning protocols for facilities where we are seeing outbreaks. We also have staff coordinating isolation shelters for those testing positive or who otherwise are housing unstable and need a place to shelter due to risk on exposure. My role is leading my team through the changes, looking for ways to bridge gaps, and making things flow a little better.

Working for a government entity, the decisions we make establish the protocol. It’s a meeting of the minds all the time to talk through and decide on best practices. For example, while handling an outbreak at a facility, assessing if they are operating safely and if additional workers are at risk of becoming ill are some of the needs to be considered. There are times where a facility is required to close. That’s a heavy one because it affects peoples’ livelihoods, their health and the food system. These are decisions we have put a lot of care and consideration into.

It’s been almost three months of this work shift and we all want a taste of what we had previously, but there is plenty of work still ahead. Our team is a tight knit group and has been incredible in their response and dedication to the work they are currently doing. I am grateful for them.

On a personal note, balancing work and family with stay at home orders and childcare closing has provided its own challenges. My husband and I have a good system for our own daytime office hours. I’m certainly working more than a standard 9-5, but where I get the hours each day varies outside of our standing office hours. 

The only place my three-year-old daughter will nap now is in the car so I’ll drive her around for car naps when I'm on childcare duty, then park safely and work on my computer in my car while she sleeps. It’s my way of sneaking in more work time wherever I can. It also means waking up extra early and staying up extra late to ensure I don’t miss anything. I have to provide for my child and be available to my team. We are making decisions about the pandemic daily and we simply need all hands on deck. 

You are in the inaugural IFSL program cohort. How did you decide to join the program? 

I lived on and helped run an organic farm for seven years, it was a dream job for me, learning to grow my own food and educating others around healthy eating. During this time I was also part of Engineers without Borders in college and traveled to Guatemala focusing on health and hygiene education in the communities we were working in. When I started working for the city as a food inspector it really married so many of my past experiences and I worked my way up from there.  

I’ve been interested in food related work as long as I can remember. I have taken an active role in my professional life participating in food access related discussions. But when community partners and decision makers started coming to me with questions about food access due to my past experiences and current role, I thought, “I’m not 100% the person to go to, I need to be better.” 

Our work in the Division of Consumer Environmental Health focuses on education and compliance of our operators around food safety. We have another division in the health department that does work on policy analysis, creation, and engagement. There are a lot of invested individuals at our department and city as a whole coming together around food access from different angles but no one person whose role is all things food access. I came back from one conference about food system sustainability thinking, “I know I need to know more, because right now I can’t speak to this in the way that we need.”

I started a Master’s in Public Health, but it hasn’t catered to my interest in food systems as specifically as I was looking for. When I found the IFSL program I thought, “Holy cow, this is it!” The curriculum covered all the areas I felt I needed to be enlightened in, that I needed more of a foundational understanding of.

The IFSL program has given me a lot more confidence being someone people can come to with questions. I’m more confident being a sounding board and speaking about something I’m passionate about. It has given me a good network of partners who all have their hand in the food system in some way to bounce ideas off of and gain insight from. IFSL is helping me make connections about how partners can work together and notice players who we may not have considered before as allies in our work.

"IFSL is helping me see ways that our decisions as a city affect our food system. . . . I am more able to think through the downstream effects of decisions and lead in strategic planning."

How has the IFSL program’s focus on understanding the food system as a whole shaped your response to the pandemic?

I was thinking about this today because obviously the pandemic is affecting “our food system” in the broadest definition of that phrase. The pandemic is not going away any time soon. It is highlighting weaknesses in the food system that we knew existed and forcing us to have conversations that will go well beyond short-term solutions.

IFSL is helping me see ways that our decisions as a city affect our food system, and I am more able to keep that conversation at the forefront. You do have to think about every aspect of what your decisions will impact. I am more able to think through the downstream effects of decisions and lead in strategic planning. 

As I said earlier, the people in the program are also an incredible resource. Coming together from so many different sectors highlights areas that you wouldn’t usually think about. In IFSL, we work on long-term projects in teams. My team includes people who work in food manufacturing and safety, co-op food store management, laboratory sales, and grassroots food access organizing. 

We joke that we wish we could meet weekly just to talk about our work: so many of the solutions are with other people in our program. In food, my experience has been that many people hold all-or-nothing positions. This program makes you realize that we miss out on so many solutions when we think that way. There’s not a prescription for the solution.

"IFSL is a great place to feel comfortable stepping into this territory, learning about it, and deciding where to go with it. There are so many places to jump to from here—into a master’s program or into a speciality area—and it is a great way to get your feet wet."

Anything else you would like to share with people considering IFSL?

I have been very pleased with the program. Outside the content, the flexibility in the program has also been excellent. I am working a ridiculous number of hours during this pandemic, and professors have been extremely understanding, kind in their feedback, and readily available to talk about the issues we are facing as a city.

I talk a lot about this program with my staff who are behind me in their careers. I tell them IFSL is a great place to feel comfortable stepping into this territory, learning about it, and deciding where to go with it. There are so many places to jump to from here—into a master’s program or into a speciality area—and it is a great way to get your feet wet. The food lenses we each bring to the program are different, as the point is to broaden our understanding of the system as a whole. So whether you are in marketing, food safety, laboratory development, community organizing or something else all together, this program is incredibly helpful.

For me, IFSL made me more confident that I’m going in the right direction. I see so many partnerships and friendships coming out of the program. These are people I plan to stay in touch with for a long time, and I’m so glad to have a platform for these conversations. It has ignited possibility in my mind for where we can grow in our community and people we serve.


Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) Program

Designed for working professionals, the IFSL program is an exciting graduate certificate program that fosters leadership, collaboration, and innovation across the food system. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Learn more.