An Interview with Holly Fowler

About Holly:

Aside from being a Net Impact Boston champion, Holly works as the Sr. Director of Sustainability and CSR at Sodexo, a food service and facilities management company. She’s also a former Net Impact Boston President and lifetime member of the organization.  You’re likely to bump into Holly at one of our events, where she will disarm you with her smile and approachability.  She’ll engage you in a highly enlightened conversation about the environment, food, Europe or triathlons.  And since you can’t help but stick around to talk more, she’ll buy you a beer.

Net Impact Boston is thrilled that Holly is organizing a sustainable food system event scheduled for June 22.  Here’s a bit about that event:

Getting Dirty: The Lowdown on Building a Sustainable Food System.

The objective of the evening is to engage in conversation about the emerging revolution in our food system with local growers, entrepreneurs, advocates, non-profits and members of the community. We will address the importance of food as it connects to the economy, the environment and social wellness.  We have the pleasure to draw on many local organizations within our community to bring perspective to this discussion, including Project Bread, Green City Growers and Taza Chocolate.

Q:  You are putting together an event for NIB coming up June 22 to discuss “the growing revolution in our food systems.”  Tell me a bit about what you hope to accomplish with this dialogue.

This will be a broad discussion about our food system.  The goal is less about having experts discuss the topic and more about “being in conversation”; it’s about the dialogue.

Food is comprised of the most fundamental elements of our lives – energy and water – so we have to care about it. Increasingly, the rising cost of fuel as well as climate change issues and weather patterns are playing a big role in the availability and security in our food systems.  That’s the big picture.

So what does a new, more sustainable food system look like?  And whose responsibility is it to bring necessary changes about — the consumer, business, government?  This event is about having these conversations.

Q:  Tell us why this panel is important to you.

I’ve been working for 11 years at the largest food service provider in the world. We serve 50 million people a day.  Having a role in sustainability at Sodexo brings with it a huge sense of responsibility.

A food system is incredibly complex.  When talking about how to improve this system, we tend to have conversations that are not thorough.  When we talk about local, we tend to talk about local-to-us.  But everywhere in the world is local to someone, and I believe in widening the dialogue.

So a goal of “Getting Dirty” is to invite as many people into the conversation as possible.  Everyone — growers, consumers, government, etc. — is in a position to influence and has a stake in whether we are creating a sustainable food system.

Q:  What do you imagine to be the future of how we grow, buy, sell and consume food in this country?  What’s the model going to look like?

There is going to be some kind of transition back to a smaller, more decentralized model, with an emphasis on improving growing practices.  We’ll continue to see the movement toward local, community-based farms as well as efforts within urban environments — much like the growth of Green City Growers — placing gardens, for instance, on urban rooftops and even in parking lots.

We’ll also see large-scale growers and agricultural companies really working to improve their growing practices and efficiencies.  We really have a water issue.  A leading industrial agricultural producer is already investing heavy R&D dollars and research into figuring out how to use less water in the agriculture side of their business.  They know that they are going to have to be more efficient. The water supply is simply not going to be available in the near future.

Obviously, thinking about trade-offs is a huge part of this conversation.  If we use less water, we’ll need more fertilizer.  This is a necessary discussion about our culture and our resources, one concern being the issue of practicality and how to avoid creating elitism around food.

Q:  From your experience, what is the biggest food opportunity we should go after to improve the viability of our natural resources and in our fight to end hunger?

Lost in our food system is an appreciation for the value of food.  We have lost diversity in our food system — we’ve lost biodiversity and an appreciation for the inputs of food.  A large problem is where people are located versus where food is located.

With that, three things we need to continue to strongly impact as businesses, government and consumers:

Go after waste. We currently throw away 25 percent of all food we produce.  Right out of the gates, we are simply wasting a lot of food and resources.

Reconnect people to food. The biggest impact will come from education.  We have to get people reconnected with their food.  There is a classic study in which children are asked to draw types of food.  When asked to draw a fish, many drew fish sticks.  When asked to draw a cow, children drew purple cows in reference to the purple cow on a popular chocolate bar.  We don’t think of food coming from nature, as energy from the sun and water from the earth.

Influence the simplification of food while improving efficiencies. We need to produce better food more efficiently.  By “better” I mean food with less artificial inputs.  Efficiencies include using less water and leveraging methodologies that help reduce erosion.  Producing and eating a more plant-based diet will have a huge impact on improving the eco-system.  Even though people have started to change out beef for all grass-fed beef, that isn’t really solving the problem.  We need to eat less beef — less overall.

Q:  If you could recommend one book to our members, what would it be?

There are many great books on the topic of sustainable food and agriculture, but the book I would recommend is “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan.  It’s an accessible entry point to the topic, and very handy as we make choices and consider trade-offs.

Q:  For members who aspire to jobs such as yours as at Sodexo, what is the reality of the job? 

My role and roles like mine hinge on being a change champion — whole systems change, culture change and behavior change — within our organizations, with our clients and partners and also with the end consumer.  So the breadth and reach of our role and the long-term focus is a big part of the job.

The reality is that, at the same time, there is a sense of urgency to move fast and solve problems for internal and external clients.  So there is pressure to prioritize and create wins, while also going slow enough to manage large, strategic projects with scale.

Q:  What is the biggest challenge that CSR/Sustainability officers face within organizations?

Sustainability is a component of everything and is a bridge for everything.  Sometimes there is a pull to work on individual parts versus the whole. The challenge is disappointing people who are looking to meet their piece of the strategy, but my role is to teach them to see their part in the larger system. I spend most of my time on culture change and behavior change, with sustainability as the foundation for this work.

Q:  I’m speaking to you by phone and you are in the car.  Where are you headed?

My mum and I are driving up to Canada to visit our relatives.  They are world-champion producers of maple syrup, or “liquid gold,” as we call it in our family. We will be partaking of that local goodness!

INTERVIEW WITH HOLLY FOWLER, Sr. Director of Sustainability and CSR at Sodexo, conducted 5/27/11 by Monica Sullivan, 2011 President, NIB

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