In her role as Capital & Innovation Director at ReFED, Alexandria (Alex) Coari catalyzes critical funding to fight food waste.
In 2020, as a result of her effective leadership and creative innovation, Coari was named as a Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient. She spoke to Waste360 about her career, and how ReFED brings together nonprofit and for-profit organizations with funders to create strategic impact, reduce food waste, and develop solutions.
Waste360: If we could start by having you talk about what are your current responsibilities in your role?
Alex Coari: Overall, as an organization, what we're trying to accomplish is to motivate more actors in the food system to take more actions that will advance the solutions to food waste.
What that looks like for me, as a director of Capital & Innovation, is really all about sharing knowledge around the problem of food waste, how much investment is needed into what areas of innovation, and what's happening with innovation in the food waste space.
There's also a network building component, which is all about getting food businesses, capital providers, solution providers, government agencies, all in the same room to understand what needs to happen and who needs to play what role.
The last component is really about catalyzing capital. Whether that's us at ReFED deploying capital that we've raised to help scale solutions or advising other funders on their strategies and investing. It can take either of those forms.
At ReFED, that has also meant that we have launched particular innovation programming, whether that has looked like an accelerator or challenges or open calls for solutions.
Waste360: What would an example be of an accelerator or a different type of innovation program that you have used?
Alex Coari: In 2019, we launched a food recovery accelerator program to help scale food recovery and hunger relief efforts around the country. We actually just published best practices for scaling food recovery and hunger relief efforts. That accelerator program was in partnership with the Walmart Foundation, Acumen and Feeding America.
Another kind of innovation program, or project, that we did was this year was to launch a regranting fund to support food waste solutions in the time of COVID. We were able to raise $3.5 million and awarded those monies out over the course of three months to 37 organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, across the U.S. that are fighting food waste and hunger. [They are] really trying to address the problems that we all saw on the news of farms dumping milk down the drain, fields not being picked, and long lines at food banks.
Waste360: How have you seen your work change in the last few months?
Alex Coari: A lot of our work is relationship based, and getting out there and seeing what's happening, and talking to partners and different stakeholders across the food system. Obviously, a lot of those in-person meet ups or speaking opportunities or just field trips, haven't been able to come together.
A good example is ReFED, generally each year, we host the largest food waste summit in the U.S. And so, unfortunately, we haven't been able to host that event this year, and we've pushed that into 2021, but convening and connecting is really a core activity of the organization.
The major project for the organization this year was to work on the development of what we're calling the ReFED Insight Engine, which is this living, breathing data center around food waste. How much food waste is happening? What are the most scalable and viable solutions?
While we've continued to do that work, because of COVID, we had to parallel path the more urgent projects that came up, namely this COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund that we launched to solve this problem we were seeing in the market, which was that a lot of donors and philanthropic funders wanted to put money to work to help scale efforts to fight food waste during COVID, but didn't have the subject matter expertise, didn't have the network to know exactly who is best suited to receive those funds.
We wanted to leverage our knowledge base and provide those financial donors, a one-stop, rapid response funding vehicle in order to do that. We never planned to launch a fund this year, but we saw this opportunity and knew that we needed to leverage our expertise while we kept our other priorities moving forward as well.
Waste360: Your career isn't a traditional waste management career. Did you start your career in food waste recovery or finance? What is your pathway to this career?
Alex Coari: I certainly did not start my career in this industry. In fact, I didn't really know that waste was necessarily an industry to go into. I just thought it was something that happened, and someone else was dealing with waste. I never thought of it as a career path.
My background is in investment banking, sustainable food supply chain certification, and then I also have years of experience in startup acceleration.
I got into this space two and a half years ago when I joined ReFED, because prior to that, I spent a year living down in Chile and Mexico. As I was thinking about coming back to the States, I was thinking a lot about the words of a recruiter who once said to me: “You have this really eclectic background, I don't get it. Do you want to make money or do you want to make an impact?”
At that moment, I knew he wasn't going to be a very helpful advocate, but it was a really pivotal career point for me because I realized that whatever I was going to go into next, I rejected the notion that one would have to choose between making money and making an impact.
When I learned about ReFED, which is really focused on motivating and mobilizing this entire food system towards action in the fight against food waste, it was like a fantastic opportunity to both make money, which I don't mean just like personally make money. I mean, you're driving the economy through job creation, business profit, savings to consumers, and then you're also able to have this social environmental impact, given the benefits that food waste reduction has. I was able to marry that finance and food supply chain and innovation experience for this role at ReFED, which I think is a perfect marriage of all of those skills in the waste sector.
Waste360: Is there anything I didn't ask you about that you would like to share?
Alex Coari: I really appreciate that question. I would say, keep an eye out for the launch of ReFED Insight Engine coming out this fall. It's really a generational leap beyond the original 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste.
It's going to be this incredible data-driven resource to help stakeholders of all types. Whether you care about fighting hunger, whether you care about climate change, whether you care about preservation and conservation of natural resources, [the Insight Engine will explain] how the fight against food waste relates to all of those topics and really is a means to solving many other important challenges of our time.