Establishing Sustainable Roots

Sustainable Management student Jenais Zarlin focuses on improving the food supply chain

In September 2019, Jenais Zarlin was looking for a way to make a social and community impact.

For almost a decade, Jenais worked across the value chain in the food industry:

“I’ve had the opportunity to work on a lot of interesting projects and the ones that have compelled me most are rooted in principles of sustainability.”

She also wanted to expand on her operations and management skills that she honed while co-founding mobile dating app startup Vibes (which has since been shut down). Today, Jenais continues to fuel her passion for sustainability and social impact as a founding member and COO of community-feeding nonprofit SF New Deal.

Launched in March, the nonprofit’s model pays restaurants to make meals for food-insecure San Franciscans. Through sustainable management practices, Jenais is helping the organization address food insecurity while supporting small businesses that are facing enormous economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place order.

Wanting to build up her practical sustainable management skills, Jenais found our Advanced Program in Sustainable Management. “The program looked like a great way to strengthen my foundation,” she says.

“I appreciated the variety of topics covered in the core courses: foundational topics in sustainability, carbon management and environmental business strategy, project implementation, environmental law and policy, compliance management systems and climate change risk-mitigation strategies—there was a lot of opportunity to dig in.”

And Jenais wants to use what she learns in our advanced sustainable management program to make sure the community impact SF New Deal makes continues to be a positive one.

Jenais, how did you know that you wanted to make a lasting impact on communities through sustainability?

I grew up in rural Northern California on the Mendocino Coast, where the redwoods meet the Pacific Ocean. I was outside all the time and developed a strong connection to the natural world. In the 1980s and 1990s, timber and fishing were the primary industries in the area, and I witnessed the collapse of both, which had a severe economic impact locally. There were clear lessons about the importance of balanced resource management.

I went to Stanford University and majored in American Studies, fairly convinced I would go to law school. After graduation, I spent three years as a case assistant and then a paralegal and had the unique opportunity to work on two compelling trials: a precedent-setting human rights case and a whistleblower case. Both were really engaging experiences that made me absolutely sure that I didn’t want to go to law school.

After some reflection, I realized that what I was really interested in was the food system. It is a lens through which so many issues could be explored. The word sustainability wasn’t part of the mainstream narrative then, but that’s effectively what drew me to it.

How did you first get involved in changing the food industry specifically?

I left my paralegal job to become a project manager for Flying Food Group in its R&D division. We were working on new products for Starbucks’ grab-and-go cases; I learned so much working closely with the R&D chef and procurement team.

One of the projects I worked on was a waste assessment: I went to multiple production facilities around the country and watched how different items were made and when and how waste was created. It was intended to inform product pricing, but I found myself thinking about how waste could be minimized and repurposed.

I also worked on customer intercepts. I would sit in a Starbucks retail location with different items we were testing displayed in front of me and ask customers what looked good to them and why. Food is a connector and a really engaging lens to consider the many issues that universally affect us. Food brings people together, it can be the root cause of trauma and conflict, and its production depends on the predictability of natural cycles.

After Flying Food Group, I joined Thanksgiving Coffee Company. I loved Thanksgiving’s approach to building deep and trusted partnerships along the value chain, beginning with the farmers and extending to distributors and retailers and their private label program that supports environmental and social organizations. We used to bring our wholesale customers to meet the farmers in the countries where we were purchasing green coffee beans. That interaction was powerful; customers didn’t just hear the names of the farmers or the cooperatives we were buying from: they shook their hands and picked ripe coffee cherries alongside them. That experience humanizes the product. It makes it easier to understand the relationship between price and quality when the value chain comes to life.

My time with Thanksgiving Coffee was extremely influential in orienting me toward sustainability in the value chain.

What are some of the things you have implemented so far that have impacted sustainability goals?

For most of my career, I’ve been oriented toward mission-driven organizations that have championed sustainability and social impact. In order to feel strongly connected to work, I need it to reflect my values. I’ve been quite fortunate to build professional experiences and skills staying true to that course.

Thanksgiving Coffee Company is a pioneer in the specialty coffee industry and centered sustainability in its operations. We were a small team, and I had the opportunity to be part of researching and implementing varied initiatives, including:

  • Switching from plastic coffee packages to Kraft paper (although the linings and polymers used in the interior of the bags were still non-recyclable)

  • Initiating the company’s B Corp. certification process

  • Assessing the carbon footprint of a package of coffee and considering shipping green coffee beans from origin via sailboat rather than cargo ship—negligible impact, unfortunately

Thanksgiving Coffee Company coffees are certified Fair Trade and Organic, and we had close relationships with the farmers and cooperatives we worked with at origin, so I frequently presented about our company’s commitment and orientation toward those issues and the importance of transparency in the value chain.

Most recently, I’ve been building SF New Deal with the organization’s co-founders Lenore Estrada and Jacob Bindman and others. We were awarded service contracts from the City of San Francisco to be a provider for two community-feeding programs. Our model broadly engages small businesses as local solution providers, and it has been really effective.

The City has a lot of really progressive sustainability standards that their vendors and contractors need to adhere to, so part of being a service provider is making sure we are in compliance and helping support subcontractors to also be in compliance. We think a lot about our own value chain, operating transparently and building trusted partnerships. As we create and formalize organizational systems and processes, sustainable responsibility is a core focus.

How will the Advanced Program in Sustainable Management help you with this focus?

I enrolled in Introduction to Climate Change, Environment and Sustainability—the first course in the Advanced Program in Sustainable Management—in early 2020 as a way to deepen my foundation and commit to centering sustainability in my work going forward. The course began at the end of February; our first two sessions were in person and then we moved online in response to the pandemic.

In both settings, I’ve found the content and classmates really engaging. The instructors have expertise in their fields and the classes have a balance of covering a lot of information broadly, with students doing deeper dives into topics of their choice. I appreciate that freedom to explore.

My passion is firmly rooted in the food-system value chain. And as we face a rapidly changing climate, it’s vital we apply regenerative thinking and improvements at every point along the way.

I recently completed Greening Your Supply Chain: Life Cycle Assessment Tools; I really liked the course. Through several independent and group projects, we were able to take deeper looks at case studies and reporting and disclosure platforms. There were a lot of really inspiring examples, and yet it’s clear how far we have to go to make progress against the Sustainable Development Goals and in the service of keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Global emissions have increased by nearly 50 percent since 1990—the call to act on this is urgent. I see circular economy principles as central to our adoption of better business models and operations, and I’m committed to advancing our acceleration toward adopting more circular principles.

Despite the challenges, there are a lot of inspiring innovations and initiatives happening right now. It’s an exciting and important time to engage in food system value chain work, and I look forward to applying what I’ve learned in the program in the service of impact.