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 Polly Ruhland.
As CEO of the United Soybean Board, Polly Ruhland is a champion of innovation in agriculture and the sustainability of the planet who believes that U.S. farms serve society in the fight against food waste and hunger. In this role, she makes it her mission to support and enhance the efforts of U.S. soybean farmers to grow a sustainable, reliable source of food, feed, fiber and fuel while achieving maximum value for soybean checkoff investments. After working many jobs across the agricultural industry from the newsroom to the C-suite, Polly has a deep admiration for farmers as stewards of the land and the value of sustainable farming practices.
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 tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Unlike many in the agricultural community, I didn’t grow up on a farm but found my love of food through cooking. Food was always important in bringing my family together around the table, and many of my fondest memories include being in the kitchen making family recipes with my mother or shopping for unique cooking and baking utensils. Studying sociology in graduate school, I began to see the role of agriculture in society but also realized that through thousands of years of history, communities had come together and been broken apart by food. Realizing I wanted to make a difference in food and agriculture, I worked at several agricultural marketing and communication jobs and learned about the power of generational stewardship first-hand from farmers and ranchers across the country before finding myself as CEO of the United Soybean Board (USB). Coming from a position as CEO of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), I was excited for the opportunity to advance soy’s reputation because it’s such a versatile product with an impact across industries — used in everything from biodiesel, to crayons, to tires and shoes, and of course, used widely across the food industry. In the four years since I’ve started, we are still finding innovative uses for soybeans that push the boundaries of what we thought was possible in agriculture. To think — it’s incredible what we have accomplished with a shared love of food and community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?
My first time speaking as CEO of CBB was at a national meat processing convention, in front of an audience of key movers and shakers — mostly men — each with a lifetime of industry knowledge and a reputation of being critical to those jumping into the metaphorical ‘shark tank.’ I remember standing backstage rehearsing my script what felt like dozens of times, hands shaking almost as much as my voice. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the presentation was over, and I was proud to have shared my point of view on the pressing matter at hand. Searching the crowd for a familiar face, I found my mentor — a petite and grandmotherly figure with the sharpest mind in the business. As a female pioneer who had spent decades of her career reshaping the industry, I anxiously awaited her praise as she took my hand in hers, and I was shocked to hear her say, ‘Dear, that was one of the worst presentations I have ever heard. If you are going to be a female CEO in this environment, you are going to have to step it up — and FAST.’
Though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear in the moment, it was certainly the feedback I needed to kick it into gear and helped me realize the weight of my role. My performance wasn’t just about our organization’s success, it was about honoring the women who had come before me in agriculture through hard work and about paving new paths for diverse voices across the industry. That critical feedback was instrumental in shaping my last 11 years as a female CEO and aided me to navigate the commodity industry through the Bovine spongiform encephalopathy outbreak “mad cow disease,” endless hurdles during the pandemic from supply chain issues to episodic weather events and constant market shifts.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I worked as a journalist for a leading livestock industry publication covering the production efforts of U.S. farmers and ranchers. I had just finished an article about a new production assistance hotline that farmers could call for planting tips and best practices. In rushing to meet my deadline and start on another story I forgot to double-check my work and transposed two digits of the hotline number. No big deal, right? As luck would have it, the misprinted number ended up being an escort service line — resulting in dozens of confused and misguided farmers who had called in search of production assistance. As much as I was mortified by my mistake in the moment, the memory now serves as a funny reminder that I need to slow down and stop doing too many things at once (even when I think I can multitask). It also taught me the importance of details, a strength that has been useful in every job that I’ve worked since, from the newsroom to the C-suite.
My advice to aspiring professionals hearing this story is to fail fast. Whether you are an executive, a farmer or just beginning your journey in the workforce, there is no single secret to success. It takes diligence, perseverance, patience, an extremely forgiving sense of humor…and a healthy degree of blind luck. But failing teaches valuable lessons. With that knowledge, we can grow, try again, and succeed in the future.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as trust-based influence. I used to dislike the word influence, and even remember sparring coworkers early in my career over use of the term as I thought it sounded too dictatorial. However, while growing in my leadership experience, I’ve come to learn that leadership is not influence at any cost, but rather basing your influence and power in trust rather than fear. It is often a fine line between authority and influence as a leader. Establishing trust by caring for your team and organization, understanding the needs of your audience and listening will get you far and keep your teams engaged with your goals. That trust is a two-way street, so make sure that you put as much trust in your team as you want them to have in you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The best life lesson I’ve ever received came from one of my professors in college, who told me that, ‘the best part of beating your head against the wall is that it feels so good when you finally stop.’ As an eager grad student and even until today, I often go beyond reason to support my big ideas and push the envelope. Stepping into a leadership role well before my time at USB, it took time to find a balance between embedding myself deeply in the work (as I have always done) and stepping back to see the wider organizational context as needed to seek solutions for the food industry’s most pressing problems. Not to mention, taking time for self-care. Now, I compare my leadership style to that of a Roomba vacuum, in that no matter how many obstacles I bump into, I’m always analyzing a problem from new angles and trying to take a new approach — leveraging the map of context and insight that I acquire daily.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now 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?
Food waste refers to perishable products — whether they be fruits and vegetables or snack foods and oils — that do not make it to the end consumer and therefore don’t contribute toward fighting food insecurity or nourishing our growing population that is estimated to surpass nine billion people by 2050. You may see more specific terms used within different sectors of the food industry, but more broadly the end goal for many of us is reducing the amount of food lost or wasted from farm to fork.
Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?
In your own kitchen at home, food waste is usually the result of forgotten foods going ‘rotten’ and needing to be thrown away from your refrigerator or pantry. When we talk about food loss on the farm, it’s not just a handful of foods to toss — but hundreds and thousands of acres in essential crops and potentially a farmer’s livelihood at stake. This is why U.S. soybean farmers remain resilient in their fight to provide a reliable and sustainable food source despite facing a growing number of issues causing food loss throughout the supply chain. Among the most prominent of these issues for farmers is the growing impact of climate change. From increased temperatures, episodic weather events and rainfall to drought, farmers constantly adjust their on-farm practices to combat these challenges to keep their crops healthy for harvest. Weather is still the main reason for low yield and crop loss on the farm, but farmers are investing their hard-earned dollars in the soy checkoff to develop new technology and advanced tools to adapt to climate change’s impending effects.
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?
For us in the agricultural industry, it’s always been apparent that U.S. farmers and ranchers are the backbones of our nation; but I think the pandemic forced many consumers to learn about the fragility of the food supply chain as they saw grocery store shelves empty in 2020 and are facing continued supply chain shortages as we approach another holiday season. U.S. soybean farmers work hard providing food, animal feed, household products and fuel that kept America moving when times were tough. Donating soy-based shoes to frontline workers, providing bottles of soy-based hand sanitizer to first responders, or just helping a neighbor in need, farmers in the soy community have stepped up as the root of the supply chain to provide solutions for communities around the globe.
With so many uses for soybeans, from tofu to soybean oil, biofuel, and even industrial uses like asphalt and candles, few barriers exist when it comes to distributing excess soybeans. U.S. soybean farmers work hard to support growth across industries by supporting millions of food and agriculture jobs dependent on farming including truck drivers, soy processors, manufacturers and restaurant operators. The U.S. soybean industry has $115 billion impact on the American economy, and U.S. soybean farmers play an essential role to support local economies. All sectors of the food supply chain rely on one another, from farmers, to restaurants, to grocers to supply a highly nutritious and sustainable product for families across the world.
Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?
U.S. soybean farmers care deeply about preserving the land for future generations. They employ sustainable farming practices such as crop rotation, reduced tillage and nutrient management to reduce inputs, boost crop productivity, lessen food waste, conserve water and enrich the quality of their soil health. In addition, every year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soybean farmers take part in USDA’s farm programs, which help farmers conserve and protect the nation’s natural resources while benefitting wildlife and pollinator habitat. USDA farm programs document in-field conservation programs and collect data that can help farmers select sustainable farming practices. Modern tools like moisture sensors, smart irrigation, precision farming and GPS-enabled tractors, drones and satellite imagery also help U.S. soy farmers to produce more soy from the same amount of land, even as they reduce use of natural resources.
With a personal commitment to advancing agriculture, one of the most important parts of my role includes advocating for technology advancement and adoption, especially when it comes to solving global issues like food insecurity. Our team at USB supports 515,000 U.S. soybean farmers –essential to feeding our growing population — to drive the soybean industry’s market potential through farmer-funded research and education. Coming to USB in 2017, my board of directors and I recognized sustainability a key focus area and spearheaded an array of initiatives to drive the future of agriculture and help the U.S. soybean industry meet and exceed sustainability goals. We work toward efficiency goals for sustainable development, at value chain junctures where our positive contributions make the biggest difference. U.S. soybean farmers improve every day, to reach sustainability goals by 2025, ultimately aiming to increase land-use efficiency and soil erosion, optimize energy use efficiency and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve also recently partnered with Soylent and International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) to launch the Sustainable U.S. Soy mark, which recognizes products made with sustainable U.S. grown soy, showcasing organizations’ ingredient transparency and responsible sourcing.
Technology innovation and adoption offer the foundational answers to food waste challenges. One of my primary goals as CEO is to constantly challenge the frontiers of agricultural innovation. As the world evolves, USB farmers prioritize innovation with every investment. One example of this is the Soy Innovation Challenge, which called on ag-tech startups and teams to disrupt the current soybean value chain through innovation and technology. Each of the four winners provides a unique value proposition, such as providing farmers with full crop-cycle analytics, compensating farmers for their land stewardship practices, offering software to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the farm, and revealing the economic impact of soy’s high-quality nutritional profile.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?
In tackling big global issues like food waste, food insecurity, making a difference can be daunting. Whether you work in the food industry or not, there are plenty of things you can do as a leader at your organization or in your community to help eliminate food waste:
- Learn from organizations already leading the charge to eliminate food waste – Our U.S. soybean farmers, as well as organizations across the supply chain already making meaningful change to sustainably grow enough food while mitigating food waste. We support a network of jobs in processing, transportation, and more distribute food more efficiently. Purchase your food from U.S. farmers with sustainable growing practices, and from organizations that minimize food waste wherever possible.
- Incentivize businesses to minimize food waste — Making the useful distribution of leftover food profitable for businesses could help minimize food waste across the industry. This could take many forms, including creation of a larger infrastructure for ‘leftover’ food distribution that would allow for participants to be incentivized for the products they contribute.
- Educate children on where our food comes from — When kids can get their hands dirty with crops and natural environments, they often grow a deeper appreciation for the planet and a deeper understanding of the work that went into the food on their plate. It’s hard to value things that you do not directly experience, so these wilderness or on-farm experiences teach them the value of stewardship and sustainability. This is critical when we think about raising the next generation of minds making decisions on the future of food, but also in raising consumers that are aware of our environment and its importance.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s going to be hard — As I worked toward a career in the C-suite, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I hoped to accomplish but hardly considered the realities of the role. When I got my first job as CEO, my mentor said to me, ‘Welcome to the loneliest job you’ll ever have,’ — quite jarring feedback compared to the warm wishes and congratulatory notes I had received from others. In a way, he warned me how hard this job would be. It can be draining to wake up every day and commit yourself, your organization, your industry even to solve some of the world’s most pressing global issues like food waste and climate change — but it feels all the more important — and motivating — in light of the pandemic.
- You can (and should) get joy from work — Growing up with a mom who served as a minister, I knew it was possible to get joy from serving others but had always been told that the corporate environment or any sort of traditional office job was a sure way to end up unhappy. My mom was downright dismissive of my more corporate career path at the start, filling me with doubt that I had chosen the wrong focus, but it didn’t take long to realize that you can (and should) find joy in whatever you do. Not to root too deep into a plant pun, but I believe in growing where you are planted and a big part of that is bringing excitement and enthusiasm to the work that you do.
- You don’t need to work all the time to win — Once you are praised for working long hours, be it a promotion, or positive feedback from your manager on a project, it can be hard not to equate longer hours with increased success in the workplace. I remember a coworker that would pop into my office after a long day, reminding me ‘this isn’t brain surgery, nobody will die if you go home now.’ It used to bother me, as if she didn’t understand the importance of the work I was doing. Fast forward to my current workload, and I think about this advice often as a reminder that everything will be okay (better, actually!) if I pace myself in the work and take adequate time for self-care and regular mental rest.
- Health is wealth (and success!) — I spent years pouring all of my efforts into my work on a day-to-day basis, and I didn’t take a step back to consider how I could multiply my capabilities and my efficiencies by taking better care of my body. Building intentional and immovable time in your schedule to focus on a healthy diet and exercise absolutely makes me better at my job, with stress management and mental acuity boosts. During the pandemic, I took up cycling — both indoor and outside. The bump to my focus, efficiency, and satisfaction reinforced this lesson. It’s one I keep learning over and over, as I get too “busy” with work and the accompanying travel to exercise, then get back at it and remember how important it is. I cannot say enough about this.
- Mentorship can change EVERYTHING — I’ve had many mentors throughout my career, each pivotal in my professional growth but also in my continuing journey to becoming a more authentic leader. Find someone at your organization, in your community, or in your industry. Ask questions, listen mindfully, accept advice, learn. Then pay it forward. Someone who doesn’t look like you, or think like you, or come from the same background as you opens wonderful new insight to prickly problems. Mentorship is a critical step in bringing new voices to leadership, but also in passing years of acquired knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Organizations like the Food Recovery Network and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine eliminate food waste across the U.S., working with independent restaurants and other foodservice organizations to rescue perishable food, and give it to someone in need. In this country, the key challenge isn’t food shortage, but rather a lack of solutions around proper distribution. In addition, barriers like standardized date labeling, restrictive nutritional labeling requirements for prepared foods, and a lack of consumer education hinder organizations from doing what these groups (and many others) have started to master. I look at these types of problems through a business lens; and like many of our toughest global issues, the scale of organizations eliminating food waste is limited by logistics and profitability. If we can make food using more purposeful and a priority for U.S. businesses, whether that means incentivizing the donation of excess food or removing logistical barriers foodservice organizations face in the process of reducing their food waste, we can help solve for cost while increasing profit and payback potential to drive more impactful action.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Plain and simple, I would inspire people to gain a better understanding of where food comes from. Seeing the work that goes into the food on your plate begins to give you an appreciation for farming — anyone who took up gardening over the pandemic and worked all summer for a handful of vegetables can attest to that. Understanding the importance of stewardship of the land and soil from first-hand experiences also brings you closer to the planet, which could do wonders in our steps toward a deeper understanding between urban and rural America. This is also our opportunity to bring more diverse voices and viewpoints into agriculture and to help us grow more food with fewer inputs and resources. We need the smartest minds of this generation to solve global issues like food waste and connecting people to food and where it comes from is the first step.
I see this first-hand in my work with Children Learning through Outdoor Experiences (ChLOE), where we inspire stewardship in the next generation. My business partner and I founded ChLOE as an organization dedicated to providing K-12 students across the country the opportunity to participate in outdoor STEM learning through the science and technology lens in agriculture and natural resources. This program provides students with experiential learning that anchors classroom learning in curiosity-driven experiences and helps create memorable lessons to teach kids about the environment, community and economy. The goal of this STEM education program is to create real-life moments that result in lifetime connections to agriculture that help the next generation understand the importance of farming and protect the future of food.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
This is a tough question, as I am constantly inspired and intrigued by the work I see from other leaders and influencers. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is my current favorite. In his newest book, he provides a fascinating take on the future of humanity as a result of advanced AI and intelligence-based consciousness. I’d be interested in his thoughts on the future of food and farming considering the integration of intelligence-based technologies like drones or robotic farm equipment.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Make sure to follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more about soy and its limitless potential as it relates to sustainability, nutrition and resilience. You can also check out The United Soybean Board on Facebook and Twitter for the latest details on the soy checkoff as well as the research, education and promotion programs we are proud of that deliver soy solutions to every life, every day.