Niyeti Shah Advocates for Better Food Systems

In this Q&A interview, Niyeti Shah founded the Food Systems Collaborative with the goal of driving positive change and speaks with Waste360 about how she brings together industry leaders, advocates, and policymakers to fight for better food systems.

Willona Sloan, Freelance writer

May 14, 2024

6 Min Read

Niyeti Shah founded the Food Systems Collaborative with the goal of driving positive change. The collaborative includes large organizations from various sectors desiring to focus on waste reduction. Shah leads the collaborative’s advocacy efforts with the mission of creating a “more equitable, nourishing, and sustainable food system.”

Previously, Shah served as senior manager of social impact at Weight Watchers and as associate director at the Milken Institute’s Center for Public Health at George Washington University, where she also earned her Master of Public Health. 

In this Q&A interview, Shah, who is a 40 Under 40 award winner, speaks with Waste360 about how she brings together industry leaders, advocates, and policymakers to fight for better food systems.

This interview has been edited for length.

Waste360: What services or programs do you offer through the collaborative?

Niyeti Shah: We are an agency that sits at the intersection of social impact and food systems and food policy. We help companies launch their first efforts into good food policy. We help them put together a policy platform, but also show the ways that they can engage their consumers in advocating for really good food policy and getting more people engaged on the policy side. The other piece of a lot of the work that we do is helping organizations and companies launch and scale widespread food recovery programs.

Waste360: Why did you found the collaborative?

Niyeti Shah: I was working at Weight Watchers and had this really amazing opportunity to engage with food donation and food policy. My background is in food systems and my master's is in public health nutrition, and I'd done some work on food policy, but predominantly with federal nutrition programs, less so on the legislative side of things.

While I was there, we had a member reach out who said, "Hey, I'm having these issues with food donation. Companies are telling me that they can't donate food to my food bank, and I think it's because the law is outdated, and I was wondering if you could help." At the time I thought, well, I can try. I know a lot of really smart people who work in this space, so let me reach out to them and see what I can do. That kind of launched this really incredible journey and career opportunity, where I was able to launch an open letter. We had 70 organizations sign that letter. It was the first time Weight Watchers had done policy; first time I had written an open letter.

We helped introduce a piece of legislation called the Food Donation Improvement Act in the House and the Senate. We hosted a Hill Day and launched this exciting advocacy campaign, both helping a lot of organizations and companies take advocacy meetings for the first time, myself included, as well as an individual-facing petition with change.org. Over the course of that year, we were fortunate to actually have that legislation passed.
After going through that experience, it was incredible to see what a huge difference policy can make, and in particular when corporations can lend their power and lend their voice to uplift policy priorities that a lot of nonprofit organizations have been championing for years. I thought, I might as well try to see if I can make a full-time job out of this.

After closing out my role at Weight Watchers, I founded the company to help other companies do the same things, like take these policy issues that are pertinent to so many of us and work with the organizations that have the boots on the ground, that have the knowledge, that have the expertise in what needs to change, and see how they can leverage their corporate voice or corporate power, their community, to uplift those policy priorities and hopefully make some long-term changes.

The other piece of the food donation side is actually just implementing the Food Donation Improvement Act that we passed the year before. After it passed, we were really thoughtful and mindful that a lot of times policies get passed, but people don't always know about it or there are other things that happen on the implementation side.

The other half of our work is really focused on just implementing that bill, so helping organizations align with these new flexibilities under the Food Donation Improvement Act, helping companies get up to date with those liability flexibilities that were enacted. There’s also a piece of it that has things to do with school donations. We’re making sure organizations are able to implement those things, as well as identify areas where there might be further opportunities for policy and advocacy as they go through that implementation journey.

Waste360: What has been a big learning curve or a skillset you've had to acquire as you've grown your business?

Niyeti Shah: I think the first, which is very tactical, is on the legislative side, being able to kind of sit in the middle of what a legislator and what a staffer is looking for, what a non-profit organization is championing and how a corporation can speak about that issue. Being able to pull those things together to have a crisp and clear policy pitch that's going to accomplish what we need it to accomplish, but is also going to resonate, has been a big skillset.

I think at a larger level, a big skill and a big learning for me was also just owning my own voice, and being really comfortable and confident in the positions that I want to take and the direction that we want to go as a company, but also the things that we want to stand up and stand behind and stand for. Having the confidence to put yourself out there and also recognize that it is really important to talk about these issues and to increase awareness, and the good that that can do, but feeling that you do have the right to have that platform and to say those things and have the confidence to really develop your own voice and be comfortable with sharing it very publicly.

Waste360: What do you enjoy about the work that you do?

Niyeti Shah: So many things. I think I have the coolest job in the world, if I'm going to be totally honest with you. I think the thing I enjoy the most is that I get to work with such phenomenal people from all across the food system and the food recovery supply chain.

Waste360: What advice would you give to a young professional who wants to work in the food policy or food waste or recovery space?
Niyeti Shah: Try to get as much experience as you can of what it means on the ground, regardless of what that topic area is for you. What does that actually look like, every single day?

My second piece of advice would be to try and meet and talk and network with as many people as possible. It's something that I feel like helped my career tremendously, that I'm always happy to do. Just try to network with as many folks as you can in the space.
The third is to not be afraid to think and dream about what your career might be outside of the confines of the roles that you're seeing. I think the space is changing so much and there are so many cool new jobs coming up that I never thought would exist. Giving yourself the confidence that if you don't feel like you fit all of the roles that you're seeing, you can create it for yourself, or that as the space progresses, it will come. Stay committed to the space and figuring out what that path is or creating it for yourself, whether or not you see it out there existing already.

About the Author(s)

Willona Sloan

Freelance writer, Waste360

Willona Sloan is a freelance writer for Waste360 covering the collection and transfer beat.

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