Reducing Food Waste: Joe Ennen Of SunOpta On How They Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste
An Interview With Martita Mestey
We can also lower our consumption and make more environmentally conscious decisions in our own kitchens by taking inventory of our pantries and refrigerators before shopping to avoid overbuying; eating leftovers and storing food properly to ensure it stays fresher longer.
It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than $160 billion worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.
Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Ennen.
Joe Ennen is the CEO of SunOpta, a pioneer fueling the future of sustainable plant-based and fruit-based food and beverages. An expert in driving dynamic growth at scale, and building vibrant company culture, Ennen believes in the power of people to build a more sustainable future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?
Before joining SunOpta, I knew the history of the company — a sustainable food company founded in 1973 by two entrepreneurs with a passion for sustainability who were determined to build a business that focused on improving the health of people and the planet. However, when I joined the company in 2019, it surprised me that the “sustainability DNA” the company was founded on was nowhere to be seen in day-to-day practice. At the time, we did not reference SunOpta as a sustainable company and there weren’t many projects that focused on sustainability. We also didn’t refer to our plant-based business as “plant-based.” At that time, we called it “aseptic beverages” — instead of what it really was, plant-based milks. This prompted the reframing and growth of the business we are currently in. I redefined the business from aseptic beverages to being a producer and innovator of plant-based products. I then began the process of dusting off the history books and telling the story of who we are and what our mission was and continues to be — to fuel the future of food. This mission, this idea that the business was something bigger than just making products attracted new passion, enthusiasm, and followership. I believed that sustainability was our core DNA and therefore it was every SunOpta team member’s job to live this out, not just the responsibility of a few select individuals managing “special projects” or building a dedicated ESG department. We simply asked for volunteers. I have been blown away by our team’s passion and willingness to engage, dedicate extra time, and work outside their respective areas of expertise to take action and make dozens upon dozens of projects a reality.
How do you define a “Leader”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My leadership style is rooted in collaboration, value, and respect. I define a leader as someone who knows how to effectively bring a mission to the masses. When a leader can help each individual team member develop a deep understanding and passion for a company’s mission that is true leadership. Effective leadership can also be defined by how successful a leader can be at cultivating a positive workplace culture. For example, leaders who encourage a strong company culture operate with a mindset that when “I Make a Difference, We Make a Difference.” Collaboration and prioritizing employee engagement are key in all aspects of quality leadership.
Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?
- While I do not claim to be an expert, food waste is food that is not eaten and ultimately ends up in a landfill. However, there is a clear distinction between food waste and food loss. There are various causes of food waste and loss that happen throughout the food system, during production, processing, distribution, retail, food service sales, and consumer consumption.
- While food waste is what happens at the end of the food chain, food loss occurs prior to food reaching the consumer. Food loss is driven by a number of factors during the growing, post-harvest, production and transportation phases. Meanwhile, food waste typically occurs at the retail and consumer level and is typically food that was originally produced for human consumption but ends up being discarded for factors including quality and safety standards.
Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?
- Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to waste food today. From my perspective, food may be wasted if there is no process or solution to capture it, if it isn’t a priority to do so, if there is no infrastructure or receiving entity to manage it, and if the solution is not easy to implement.
- According to research by the organization Feeding America, food goes to waste at every stage of food production and distribution — from farmers to packers and shippers, from manufacturers to retailers to consumers. Overall, a staggering 40% of food in America is wasted yearly — and food waste in our homes makes up about 39% of all food waste, that’s about 42 billion pounds of food waste.
What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?
- A few obstacles companies often face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food are logistical costs and possible food safety concerns. For example, distributing food requires significant logistical coordination and resources, including transportation, storage, and distribution networks. Companies and organizations may struggle to efficiently transport and distribute food to those in need, especially if they are in areas with poor transportation infrastructure. In terms of food safety concerns, companies may also be hesitant to donate excess food due to misconceptions about food safety versus food quality.
- A few ways to combat this include partnering with local food banks and charities to understand their needs and capabilities. At SunOpta, we worked with Feeding America to learn about their operations and then developed standard operating procedures and launched a Food Loss and Food Waste Reduction Policy. As a food and beverage company we enacted this policy because we recognize the positive impact that we can have on the food system to support food security and nutrition, all the while reducing food loss and food waste. We support Target 12.3 of the UN SDG on Food Loss & Waste, which strives to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including postharvest losses” by 2030
- Partnering with established organizations that have experience distributing food can help companies overcome logistical barriers and ensure that their donations reach those in need.
Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?
- Reducing food waste is an important part of our ESG efforts, and our progress toward eliminating food waste is outlined in our 2022 ESG report. In fact, in 2022, we made progress toward our zero waste to landfill goal with six of our manufacturing facilities having achieved zero waste status and two others awaiting verification.
- We also developed a Food Loss and Waste Policy and standard operating procedures, which laid the groundwork for us to donate the equivalent of more than 1.9 million meals to Feeding America in the last year. In addition, we revamped our internal system to enable complete and efficient tracking of donated products.
- SunOpta practices reducing food waste through our production of upcycled food. For background, upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to consumption, and instead are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains to have a positive impact on the environment. In 2022, we received Upcycled Certification for our OatGold oat protein powder, which is a direct byproduct of our oatmilk production. This ingredient is now used by fellow sustainable food company Seven Sundays as the primary ingredient in their Oat Protein Cereal. What is great about OatGold is that it’s really versatile, high in protein, and a good source of fiber that can be used as an ingredient in a wide range of foods. This process was an example of our ability to combine the power of innovation and sustainability.
- At SunOpta, we take thoughtful steps to repurpose food that does not meet our standards or those of our customers (such as damaged fruits or vegetables that are still safe to eat) by redirecting it for another use, when possible, or sending surplus food to food banks rather than to other waste streams. As part of our sustainability culture, our research and development team help reduce food waste by offering excess food and beverage samples to employees once a month.
- We also work tirelessly to reduce food waste in our value chains. For example, in our fruit segment, we commercialize and sell almost all the parts of the fruit to ensure little to no fruit is wasted. We currently sell juice-stock strawberries for further processing of berries that otherwise would have gone to waste. We also sell several byproducts to reduce waste, including but not limited to raspberry crumbles and mango bits and pieces, both natural byproducts of our IQF process. In our fruit segment, we also collaborate with local growers and farmers to practice sustainable sourcing and prevent food waste by connecting growers with alternate buyers of otherwise unusable fruit.
Are there things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?
- People can help address the root of the food waste problem by opting for sustainably made foods and beverages, supporting local food systems, and supporting food recovery programs. For example, consumers can reduce their own carbon footprints by purchasing upcycled food and beverage products or opting for shelf stable plant-based milk rather than cow’s milk, because plant-based milk products use less resources to produce, do not need to be refrigerated until opened, and guarantee a longer shelf-life.
- We can also lower our consumption and make more environmentally conscious decisions in our own kitchens by taking inventory of our pantries and refrigerators before shopping to avoid overbuying; eating leftovers and storing food properly to ensure it stays fresher longer.
- Feeding America has a resource page available online that can help educate communities on ways we can all do our part to reduce food waste. https://www.feedingamerica.org/our-work/reduce-food-waste
Aside from your organization, what other leaders or organizations are doing good work to address food waste What makes their work notable and what are you seeing them address to directly tackle food waste?
I believe Feeding America, which is also one of our partners, is doing a tremendous job of not only tackling food insecurity for children and families in the U.S. but also addressing and working to decrease food waste. Feeding American has an incredible Food Rescue program that works to actively solve for food waste in America. Last year alone, the Feeding America network of local food banks and partner agencies like food pantries and meal programs rescued 3.6 billion pounds of groceries. That food went directly to meals for people facing hunger, which makes Feeding America the largest food rescue organization in the country.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
- You can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-ennen
- You can follow SunOpta on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/sunopta/
- Or you can visit our website at sunopta.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.