The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Laura Sylvester

Laura Sylvester
Legislative and Community Partnership Coordinator
Food Bank of Western Massachusetts


What I do: I advocate on the state and federal level for policy issues that help alleviate hunger and the conditions that cause it (SNAP, TEFAP, MEFAP, the Farm Bill, the Healthy Incentives Program, Breakfast After the Bell, etc.). I interact with elected officials and the public to educate them (and encourage them to advocate) about these issues. I work to expand the number of high-poverty schools in western Massachusetts that offer breakfast in the classroom, and I work with other organizations and nonprofits in coalitions to try to help ease the problems facing our region. For example, I’m a member of the Coalition to End Hunger and the Western MA Health Equity Network.

How I ended up working there: The old-fashioned way—I saw the job opening on Indeed and applied for it.

The best part of my job: I am lucky to say that I love every part of my job, but the best part is that I get to be out in the community, meeting and working with dedicated people to solve big problems. I was very clear in my job search that I didn’t want a job where I would be stuck at a desk for 40 hours/week.

A recent exciting work experience: Last month I helped organize a lobby day at the Massachusetts State House for the Healthy Incentives Program, which provides matching funds for SNAP recipients when they use their EBT (debit) cards to purchase fresh local produce at farm stands, farm markets, mobile markets, and CSAs (farm shares). The money goes back onto their card so it can be used for other groceries, as well as to the farmer they’re buying from. In the first seven months of the program, it was so popular that it went through three years’ worth of funds, while contributing more than $3,000,000 to the local economy—a great example of a public policy that works for everyone. The lobby day was an attempt to get legislators to put money into the supplemental budget to avoid suspending HIP when funds ran out on April 15, and to put adequate funding in the FY19 budget so we don’t face this problem again. When the House released its version of the supplemental budget a few weeks later, they actually gave us more money than we had asked for! Unfortunately, we were unable to avoid the suspension because the Senate is still debating their version, but we know that HIP will be reinstated as soon as the supplemental budget is passed and that the program has legislative support moving forward.

I love going to the State House and an added bonus is getting to see SPP alums who work there like Kelsey Barowich and Emily Hajjar.

How the School of Public Policy prepared me for my career: Both the classwork and the project work were invaluable in teaching me to think critically about how policies get made and what makes good public policy. I was lucky because my time at SPP coincided with my work on the MA Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, so I was able to incorporate my work on that bill into my classwork and my capstone. I wrote the first draft of the bill in Peter Vickery’s legislative drafting class. Being able to work on a bill from idea to eventual passage was invaluable and definitely helped me land my current job. Henry Chang’s federal budget class gave me insight that I use constantly in my work, as did Betsy Schmidt’s nonprofit law class, so in addition to all the great core classes SPP offers, don’t skimp on the electives!

Advice to students considering a degree in public policy: Do it! Nothing is more important right now than preserving our democracy. Not only that, but there are so many things you can do with a public policy degree. It will give you countless options. SPP alums are doing so many cool and varied things, in locations all around the world.

Future plans: Maybe run for office or work as a legislative director for an elected official.