Three hurricanes and two tropical storms struck Louisiana during the record-breaking 2020 season, rapidly changing priorities for Shavana Howard and her colleagues.
Thousands of homes and businesses were left beyond repair. Roofs that could be fixed waited for months for work crews.
“The biggest challenge was sheltering Louisianians,” says Howard (’05 Psych.), who was the assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services during those five back-to-back disasters. They also led to an unprecedented need for food. Her staff had to stop performing their regular jobs and start processing five times the normal volume of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications.
“Some had no homes, but they continued to show up—and I saw the resiliency,” she says. “People had to overcome so many disasters. It was monumental.”
Howard carried the memory of that resolve with her to Washington, DC, where she has served as a senior advisor for food, nutrition, and consumer services in the US Department of Agriculture since early 2023. Now she tackles food insecurity and other emergency needs on a national scale.
“I am looking at the entire country and how we all operate, working things from a federal perspective,” Howard says. Up until this year, “my entire career has been all about the state perspective. I had to respond to challenges considering area policies and politics. Now, I am helping to support states to see what options they have.”
Howard works with SNAP leadership and officials to support and hold states accountable for SNAP operations. She addresses reviews, regulations, and state waiver requests daily, among many other duties.
She blends those daily duties and their results into the big picture that involves local and federal efforts. Howard has worked with the Senate Agriculture committee, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and staff, delegates from Delaware, and others.
Howard had witnessed emergencies before working in Louisiana. From early 2003 to spring 2020, she was an administrator in Washington state’s Department of Social and Health Services, where she watched wildfires take their toll. “I spent the majority of my career in Washington (state),” Howard says. “It helped set me up for the position I’m in now.”
She experienced her own difficulties as a youth in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. “We grew up in poverty,” says Howard, who has been married for 20 years and is the mother of two adult sons. “My mother was a single mom, and it was me and my two brothers. We were on these programs. It built up that fire to help and do something better.”
When she moved as a young adult with her family across the country, Howard continued her education at Pierce College in Puyallup before transferring to Washington State University. Psychology classes “made me want to stay in the field of helping people. I wanted to impact society.”
Howard is making that impact in an invigorating environment that provides new challenges. Nearly a year into her new role, she calls upon her personal and professional experience. Working through the aftermath of wildfires and hurricanes is one piece of that role. Her upbringing motivates her to do more. “[It] reminds me of why I continue to go fight every day.”