KANSAS CITY — A few years ago General Mills, Inc. integrated its sustainability programs and its philanthropy programs into one global impact organization.
“This is not common at many companies,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer, in a July 20 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ virtual FIRST conference. “There are very, very few companies that actually have integrated these two disciplines into one global function.
“It has completely accelerated our work in the global impact space, from greenhouse gas emissions to regenerative agriculture to our work in human rights around the world. We have been able to actually leverage our philanthropy to advance big, bold public commitments.”
The Minneapolis-based company over the past few years has changed how it approaches sustainable sourcing. At first, the focus was on getting farmers who supply the company to use fewer pesticides and till the soil less.
“We were really focused on doing less harm, not necessarily doing more good,” Ms. Melendez said.
By listening to farmers, the company learned how regenerative agriculture provides benefits in areas like soil health and biodiversity. General Mills now has a goal of advancing regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. Regenerative agriculture, by improving farmland and thus food production, could help in making certain people around the globe have access to affordable and nutritious food.
“It harkens back to the importance of ensuring that as we transition to a just and equitable food system that we do it in a regenerative way and be really thoughtful about intentionally taking down systems that have kept others out of the equitable food access realm,” Ms. Melendez said.
A dual societal crisis of the COVID-19 global pandemic and racial injustice in 2020 reinforced the company’s strategy on sustainability and philanthropy, she said. General Mills in one example instituted a manufacture-to-donate program.
“We actually leveraged underutilized capacity to produce $5 million of food donations to help nourish those families and children in need during the time when kids weren’t getting school meals or their parents were really struggling to make ends meet,” Ms. Melendez said.
COVID-19 increased emphasis on sustainability, too, she said.
“Unfortunately, it took a global crisis to have Mother Nature wake up humanity,” Ms. Melendez said. “I think she’s been trying to get our attention through climate change and extreme weather, but the global pandemic got our attention.”