University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: MLK Award Recipient Improves Access to Healthy Food and Breastfeeding Support

MLK Award Recipient Improves Access to Healthy Food and Breastfeeding Support


Growing up in Mount Olive, Mississippi, Shelly Johnston recalls receiving the customary overview of her state’s history, which emphasized its intimate involvement with slavery and the civil rights movement.

“Possessing a strong vein of altruism, I was troubled by this history, but felt a disconnect between my reality and the daunting stories of violence and injustice,” Johnston said. “In time, I cultivated a sense of personal responsibility to better understand that history through the voices of activists and communities of color, both past and present.”

Shelly photo
Ashlie Chandler
Shelly Johnston

Through this self-directed exploration, Johnston began to see things through a new lens: one that acknowledges the impact of past grievances upon present-day society and values the voices of marginalized communities in shaping a more just, equitable future.

“From an early age, my parents emphasized the value of maintaining thoughtful relationships with those who reflect differing opinions and backgrounds than myself,” Johnston said. “These relationships continue to shape my worldview and reaffirm the importance of civil dialogue.”

Johnston, a recent graduate of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington School of Public Health, was honored Jan. 12 as a recipient of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Volunteer Recognition Award. She was awarded for her impact on health and health equity, particularly in the area of maternal and child health. Johnston was among several people from the UW Health Sciences schools honored for their commitment to serve communities in need.

“I am grateful to receive an award honoring the character and sacrifice of a monumental figure in our history,” Johnston said. “I sincerely appreciate the nomination by the Nutritional Sciences Program and dedicate this honor to my fellow cohort members, who fostered critical conversations in the academic setting and demonstrated commitment to these discussions through activism and community engagement. They were certainly the inspiration and catalyst for my actions.”

Johnston completed her MPH and her studies in the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics in December. Her work has already influenced several groups and policy areas both within the state and nationally.

In the U.S., many families are unable to achieve their breastfeeding goals due to sociopolitical and structural barriers. For her thesis, Johnston collaborated with the UW Center for Public Health Nutrition (CPHN) to identify factors that motivate community clinics to adopt supportive breastfeeding policies. The study involved a thematic content analysis of interviews conducted with 17 community clinics. The data were initially collected for CPHN’s parent study on breastfeeding policy, which included 130 interviewees from five unique sectors in Washington state. 

“Food is inextricably linked to our health and well-being,” Johnston said. “If we think of the early years of life as the foundation for our health, then ensuring our mothers, infants and children have access to nourishing foods and breastfeeding support is imperative to achieve our long-term goals for health equity.”

For her public health practicum, Johnston worked with the Washington State Food Systems Roundtable to support the launch of the draft 25-Year Prospectus, a roadmap consisting of goals and strategies to achieve a 25-year vision for a sustainable and equitable food system.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to see the complexities of policy development and the unique role of public health in food system interventions,” Johnston said. “It is our social responsibility to ensure an equitable start for future generations, and I plan to support strategies that work to achieve this goal through advocacy and my professional career.”

Johnston plans to first gain field experience as a public health nutritionist and subsequently pursue a career in higher education. She is currently studying to take the Registered Dietitian exam and will soon begin the search for job opportunities in the Seattle area.

In her free time, Johnston enjoys reading, enjoying the outdoors and cooking. She loves challenging herself with new recipes or techniques—the most recent ventures being fresh pasta and the art of biscuit making.