Demand for sustainability experts is rising as more companies adopt environmental, social, and corporate governance strategies. But the supply of seasoned “green” professionals is lagging, especially in the highly specialized area of food waste reduction.
Even multibillion food corporations are under-resourced, typically with a dedicated sustainability team of three or four, tops, notes Mali'o Kodis, project manager, Host Recruitment & Partnerships Climate Corps, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
That’s why EDF and ReFED pooled their resources and respective areas of expertise to support corporations in the food industry, recruiting, training, and matching graduate students with companies to help those companies identify food waste issues and develop strategies to tackle them. Fellows took on tasks from data collection and analysis to solution implementation and refinement.
EDF was already training graduates and placing them at companies who needed a capacity boost to meet their sustainability goals, Kodis says. Though the environmental advocacy group’s “Climate Corps Fellowship” historically focused in areas like greenhouse gas accounting, fleet electrification, and clean energy acquisition. The food waste cohort is new to the program.
“EDF works in fisheries and food and agriculture, but we do not have expertise in food waste, while ReFED does. They came to us because they were hearing from companies they work with that they wanted help addressing food waste. And from that a partnership was born,” Kodis says.
ReFED, who serves as strategic advisor to support the new Climate Corps Fellowship focus, is deeply rooted in gathering and analyzing data, leveraging insights gained to develop workable approaches to prevent or curb food waste.
The national nonprofit trained and supported 11 fellows through their 10- to 12- week-long projects with corporations such as Albertsons, Conagra Brands, J.M. Smucker, and Sodexo, as well as the New York City Housing Authority and Lane County in Oregon. They went in after a week-long orientation where they learned for instance how to identify opportunities and get key decision makers to buy into proposed approaches. And they received ongoing guidance as they had questions or hit bumps.
Companies understood food waste was a big problem but did not have capacity or expertise to know where to start to deal with it, notes Angel Veza, senior manager of Capital, Innovation, and Engagement at ReFED.
“We are providing them this dedicated resource to drive waste reduction that they probably would not otherwise have. At the same time, we are working to create a workforce of young professionals with experience, knowledge, and the understanding of how to work with companies to reduce food waste,” Veza says.
All fellows are graduate students, some who are pursuing MBAs or dual degrees in business and sustainability. A few are seasoned professionals with experience in occupations like lawyer to change management consultant helping restructure companies.
While aspiring to have an environmental impact, they had minimal to no experience in food waste.
“But it was not as much about experience. Rather, we were looking for specific qualities and transferable skills. We wanted graduate students who were fast learners, asked good questions, are strong communicators, and who ideally had experience in some kind of [business] operation or in developing products,” Veza says.
For host companies, ReFED and EDF were looking for those that could have the largest impact, focusing both on their size and reach and on selecting operations across the supply chain—retailers, manufacturers, food service companies, and a couple of public or nonprofit operations.
ReFED and EDF worked together to figure out who to target to apply, reaching out largely to companies they had existing relationships with, Kodis says.
“We worked with host companies closely to hone in on what would be most productive and possible for graduate students to do in two or three months. Companies had to outline [their objectives] and have specific project ideas,” she says.
Among them are United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), one of the largest food distributors in North America. Fellow Fredrick Selby was charged with the task of collating volumes of data scattered across 56 distribution centers and creating a dashboard to centralize it, leveraged to determine where in the operation food was getting wasted, why, and to assess associated costs.
Selby came on board with a little history around food waste prevention from his years in the restaurant industry. Where he was probably able to make the most difference in the past was at an oyster bar where he saw that hundreds of thousands of shells got donated to help restore oyster reefs in New York Harbor. He hopes to do a lot more.
“What excites me most about this work is the sheer scale of the problem,” he says. “This is literally tons of food. For me, that’s not daunting, it’s thrilling. It means the impact of getting this right will be equally massive.”
Amy’s Kitchen’s project entailed inventorying waste at one production facility.
Fellow Santiago Toral, born and raised in Ecuador, was on the floor with hair net and clipboard, speaking to the California facility’s workers in Spanish, looking to determine where the waste was coming from. And working to figure out solutions, like more efficient recipes or tweaked production schedules.
Each of the first projects is completed.
Most of the fellows are back at school, finishing their graduate programs, and some are job hunting. A few have changed their career trajectory with plans to focus their sustainability work in the food industry, Veza says.
Some host companies are leveraging the foundational work done by the fellows to push their sustainability goals forward.
UNFI for example is using its new dashboard to continue identifying what’s happening on the ground within its operations and to inform development of waste reduction strategies.
“This first year was a test where we only selected 10 companies,” Veza says. But she sees the program growing along with demand to find fixes for food waste problems.
“Over time it will become more of a priority for companies [to invest in food waste reduction] given supply chain challenges and concern around food costs.”
ReFED and EDF anticipate playing an ongoing role in meeting need.
Says Veza: “Ultimately, we hope to reach more leading food businesses and companies to help them find best ways to significantly reduce food waste in their operations and along their value chains to have a bigger impact.”