The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group together present this series, People to Watch, to focus on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Regina Anderson, executive director of the Food Recovery Network.
Tell me a little bit about you and what do you like to do with your time away from the office?
Whenever I get asked that question, I love talking about what it means to be a nonprofit leader. People don’t understand how much time we put into our jobs. For example, I love to travel and end up traveling a lot for Food Recovery Network. If you are in the nonprofit space trying to avoid burnout, you go toward a work-life blend.
If I’m traveling for Food Recovery Network, I add fun stuff to do for myself. I also love my dog and I’m a huge hiker, so that is a large part of how I spend my free time. Being outside is a big part of my personality. I do have a very robust set of friends that I love dearly. I love cooking for them, visiting them and helping them. I have a background in cultural studies and I enjoy going to museums, plays, the movies and baseball games.
Please provide a brief description of Food Recovery Network.
Food Recovery Network is the largest student-driven nonprofit that is fighting waste and feeding people. We do that by working with college students across the country. We mentor, coach and support the students to establish food recovery programs on the college campuses. Food Recovery Network teaches them how to safely package up dining-hall surplus food and bring that really good food to hunger-fighting partner agencies, such as foodbanks or other nonprofits in their local community who in some capacity work to feed people.
At the same time, Food Recovery Network has moved into a new level of ability—helping the business sector do the same though Food Recovery Verified program. It recognizes food businesses and events that are working to fight waste and feed people through food recovery. Our whole aim is to make food recovery the norm and not the exception. We want higher education to be the first sector that can successfully say that.
What is your role, responsibilities at Food Recovery Network?
Overall with Food Recovery Network, I work really closely with the board of directors to set a strategy for where Food Recovery Network is going into the future. I work with the staff, the board and other stakeholders to make that pathway a reality and make any kind of changes that we might see along the way.
Recently, we worked to build a three-year strategic plan. As things unfold, we make the necessary changes to achieve that strategy. Although that is a big part of my day-to-day, fundraising is a big responsibility to make sure we have the monetary resources for staff and office space, and travel to meet with students who are the engine of Food Recovery Network. I also need to make sure we have the resources we need to provide to student chapters. As challenges come up, it’s my job to make those barriers go away.
What was your career path to this position?
I’ve always been in the nonprofit sector. I like to mention that the reason I know what the nonprofit sector is that in undergrad I joined AmeriCorps. While I was there, I finished up someone’s year of service because that person couldn’t complete the full year. I also did AmeriCorps recruitment. For me, it was as simple as, “I can have a job that helps people.” My past experience had never encompassed that before.
I then began to work with the American Civil Liberties Union as the office manager, where I learned really important things that have become the building blocks for my career. Things such as people’s constitutional rights, like our right to assemble. On the other side, I learned about the structural ways to organize an office, which is what helped me get to my next job. I went on to grad school to think deeper about structural issues that I’ve been exposed to, like the challenges human beings face or what it’s like being a brown woman in the world.
After that, I was propelled into career of individual leadership development. That’s where I started working very directly with college students and I was inspired by them gaining knowledge and experience. That’s what led me to Food Recovery Network. But before I joined, I worked at an anti-poverty nonprofit. This organization was started by college student. At that job, we offered wrap-around services to lift children and their families out of poverty.
I believe so strongly in the positive impact young people can have when we listen to them, we need to invite them to the tables we’ve already set up. When we invite young people to the table, that’s a wonderful beautiful thing. When we give young people the chance to say, “We don’t want this table at all, let’s sit somewhere completely different.” When we trust in them enough to make these kinds of changes and don’t force them to interact with what we’ve already set up, that’s when a disruptive, entrepreneurial system change driven by young people takes place.
In the nonprofit sector, we’re only as good as the individuals dedicated to solving very complex problems. Of course, we need other sectors, but it’s the nonprofit sector that takes care of day-to-day issues like homelessness and hunger. The government sets up policies we hope are coming from a good place to take care of people, but nonprofits provide resources that support communities to make sure they thrive.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
The beautiful thing about young people—Millennial and Generation Z —involved in Food Recovery Network is that they’re very frank. They don’t go with regular old brands because that’s what people have always done.
I think new jobs will be created because of the way younger folks are thinking—and not just greenwashing or pie in the sky. For example, one of our alums, Jack Steinman, got a job in California based on a house bill that says higher education institutions cannot throw away organic food. At a policy level, this changes how those institutions and other companies will do their work, as these policies didn’t exist before.
As Food Recovery Network is hiring, we have new people and new demands we haven’t seen before. The pandemic has shown folks that if you don’t know what to do with surplus food when you have it, you better start learning that. We interact with different organizations that are working with restaurants to ensure surplus food reduces costs by certain time frame. We want farmers to make money from food and restaurants to profit.
We need new advances and creativity to ensure they get the most dollars for the work they are doing. At the same time, opportunities are coming up to ensure there is no food thrown away. We need to create beautiful new systems changes.
In what ways does Food Recovery Network focus on developing future leadership? Tell me a little more about that.
We do it in two different ways.
First, at the national level, for students who are involved with Food Recovery Network. When students make a commitment to the recovery program, whether or not they are identifying themselves, they are a leader. They’re exhibiting leadership qualities and we’re helping enhance those qualities.
We help create leadership opportunities that establish a chapter. We even help student chapters talk with dining providers who’ve told them “no” before. We want them to learn how to work through the tough conversations. If you learn about having difficult conversations when you were 18-19, it follows you throughout life.
Our programming’s entrenched on enhancing peoples’ leadership. As an example of this leadership, our University of Michigan crew managed to get a city official to be a guest speaker on a virtual panel facilitated by students. Food Recovery Network provides stipend for students to provide mentorship and create programming so students can further educate others.
Secondly, internally for staff that works at Food Recovery Network. We have a fellowship that we are trying to strengthen every year with feedback from fellows. This is a one- to two-year opportunity with in-house training, teaching fellows skills they wouldn’t learn in an intentional way. No one taught me how to work backwards on a timeline, I don’t remember where I learned it.
This is such a small example, but people learn that stuff by fire at organizations. Food Recovery Network has a plethora of tools we provide to each and every person. They are more prepared than peers who did different things because of their fellowship. We doubled down on our testament to our commitment by hiring a chief operating officer that has personal leadership background.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry….either internally or externally? Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
I mentored a bunch of different groups when I was at the individual leadership development organization. I worked with a congressional hunger center. We used to host their students and I was a mentor for Net Impact. I have people I turn to in my life for advice on my career, this helps me identify where I can gain more experience.
I went through American Express Leadership Academy, a week of intensive individual leadership development. Leading up to this, I had a ton of self-assessments where we were able to talk about the feedback from current bosses and peers. I am a big proponent for keeping the door open. This is just how we keep a thriving community and larger national fabric, by engaging in civic duties.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
We don’t always have the opportunity to do this, but I gained my experience by working 60 hours a week. I wasn’t volunteering too much—I couldn’t. The jobs I was at weren’t exactly the career I saw myself in, but I had to pay my bills. If you have the opportunity, 1,000 percent volunteer. Sometimes we have students that do every recovery, other times we have someone come on one recovery because someone asked them to. Willingness to volunteer at any capacity is huge. That’s how I learned how to do some fundraising.
Explore tons of different organizations. You might have to apply, but don’t be afraid to use your weekend for enhancement. I took my younger years as an opportunity to just infuse wherever I could. We all need our downtime and in different levels than other people, but you will be surprised how much time you let go when you’re on Instagram or Facebook.
Don’t get bored using the internet, when you can be reading, drawing or playing in dirt. These things help make a strong mind, which is something I definitely encourage. I don’t try to do too much silly stuff. Define that however you want.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point, which you found most helpful?
Back to mentoring—during my AmeriCorps assessment—enough people told me they felt I was way too casual. For them, that meant I didn’t necessarily take what I was doing seriously. They had a different perception of me than I did of myself.
I could defend it and say, “I’m a stress-free person.” But enough people gave that feedback that made me say, “OK, I need to alter how I approach certain meetings and communication.” In my mind that was showing excitement or curiosity. Other people were like, “Will you just calm down?” It was a big turning point. Not too shortly after that, I became an executive director for the first time.
Being able to seek out feedback, hearing it, digesting it, and—if you need—making some course corrections is super important. Don’t know how? Be vulnerable in that way. That’s some early-on advice that helped me in that career.
Now I’m the boss and I can add exclamations if I want to. I can tell the team that story and say I’m pretty casual and relaxed—and I doubled the budget of the nonprofit. I don’t mess around even though I look casual.
I had other people look at my resume. People said, “It says helper, doesn’t say leader.” I had to change adjectives because I was being too humble. Don’t take credit for stuff you didn’t do, that will come up with a good interviewer, but get other peoples’ opinion on your stuff. Don’t be afraid to get feedback from your peers because you’re afraid of what they might say. This feedback is better feeling than a rejection letter because your resume doesn’t portray what you think it does.