SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY Kroger Empowers and Enables Employees to Engage with Their Communities

Introducing Joe Miskimins,

Kroger’s Vice President Of Produce And Floral

Joe Miskimins

In honoring Kroger for its progressive sustainability initiatives, we were captivated by Kroger’s perishable donations partnership (PDP), symbolic for many reasons: notably the company-wide engagement; the powerful impact for people in need; and the scalable nature of a community-centric program. Exploring the impact of PDP on Kroger’s produce department, we contacted Joe Miskimins, a 32-year Kroger veteran who recently replaced Reggie Griffin and now leads the company’s vision and strategy for the produce and floral departments.


PRODUCE BUSINESS: Could you share with our readers how produce is being incorporated into PDP?

Joe Miskimins: To start with, PDP is a great program. Our first inclination is that we want to sell product. If that doesn’t work, it goes to those in need through PDP, a critical and far-reaching social cause. If someone can use it to help stave off hunger, we feel good about that.

PB: What challenges particular to produce do you face in executing the program?

Miskimins: It’s best to look at the logistics piece of that as both a challenge and opportunity for us. Produce is a highly perishable product, but if there’s a food bank right down the road and good logistics, we can make it happen. In the same way, if the distance to the food bank, church or other charitable organization presents obstacles or there are other operational issues, we need to partner to overcome them.

Meat you can freeze and use another day, but you can’t do that with produce. In many cases, perishable products designated for the food bank can be shipped to the warehouse. Produce, however, is normally picked up from the store and doesn’t go back to the warehouse.

The distance thing is what we worry about. Produce items differ on shelf-life and levels of perishability. Some produce categories gear themselves more easily to PDP. A potato, for instance, has product attributes to withstand various elements and hold quality longer, while berries and soft foods are more sensitive, highly perishable and go bad quickly.

Much depends on how sophisticated the food bank and warehouse operations are; how far away is it, and whether they have proper trucking, logistics and refrigeration.

PB: Does Kroger work with food banks and other charitable organizations that are not set up properly to handle produce donations? How does Kroger handle issues of food safety? Could you elaborate on how a program of this scale and magnitude becomes implemented across so many banners covering such a diverse nationwide landscape?

Miskimins: In many ways, it comes down to the individual store. There are pockets of the country where the program is more developed. We keep food safety standards a priority and requirements remain uncompromised. Some success depends on how frequent the pickup, and environment makes a difference. For example, is the area highly populated or not?

PB: How far along is the produce portion of the Perishable Donations Partnership? Out of the total 41 million pounds of food Kroger donated last year through the program, what percentage of that was produce-related items?

Miskimins: We have no number, but we’re continuing to grow. It depends on how sophisticated we can get, how engaged we become as a company, how our associates— I call them ambassadors — help build the program.
From an operational strength basis, we have a conditioning program and culling program to make sure we’re offering the best products to our consumer, or they are pulled off and put in a markdown program or in a different bin for PDP.

PB: Does composting play a role here as well?

Miskimins: The composting is not done straight through produce; it’s something we are doing in some divisions and testing. Much depends on the capacity of the community we’re in. In California, there are plenty of places to compost, and companies that will take it.

It’s a new process for our associates. Both composting and the Perishable Donations Program are novel experiences for our associates, but ones they’re really anxious and excited to run. We go to stores and they want to help. The younger associates are enthusiastic, and many of our long-term associates know we’ve been getting rid of food for years and now we can use it to feed the hungry. It gives people such an important cause to rally behind.

PB: In a broader sense, a reoccurring theme throughout our visit to Kroger was the concept of community engagement, both internally and within the markets you serve. How does this mantra relate to produce? Could you comment on sustainability programs such as zero waste initiatives in the context of produce?

Miskimins: Engagement is important. You don’t move an organization like this without engaging your associates or customers. It must work at the corporate level and divisionally down to the individual store.

I wouldn’t use that phrasing of “zero waste.” We are not there yet. Some places in California are easier in regards to sustainability. There are a lot of programs we’re working through to reduce waste. I can talk about goals and objectives in produce, to load all trucks to full capacity. For years we’d have trucks half full. Be sure we’re not wasteful of energy, and increase use of Returnable Plastic Containers (RPCs). RPCs have been around for awhile, and we’ve meddled in it a little bit. As we move forward, RPCs will be a stronger initiative.

PB: How and why? What percentage of produce is shipped via RPCs? Are you considering using RPCs on the retail floor?

Miskimins: We’re looking at options of merchandising with RPCs in stores. We have several pilots going on, along with refrigerated cases. We’re testing it. We ship roughly 18 to 19 percent of produce in RPCs currently. Obviously, we’re talking about eliminating cardboard waste. It’s a returnable container, so there are a lot of advantages from a social aspect. Also, our goal is delivering fresher product to our consumers and we see RPCs as a tool in that mission.

PB: How important is locally grown produce and how is the concept of local being pursued within the produce department? What are some of the key challenges and opportunities in this area? Do you have any vignettes that you could share with our readers about your experiences with local farmers?

Miskimins: Local is huge. I’ll tell you that. Consumers are asking for it and our job is always to react to consumers. We’re identifying more farmers and suppliers. We try to partner with states; Michigan for blueberries, Olathe corn is a big deal for us, Vidalia onions out of Georgia, to name a few.

We feel we’re only at the tip of the iceberg on what local will mean to Kroger in the future. We want fresh product, and local resonates with our customers. Local is dear to my heart. It goes back to the engagement piece. I’ve been in Seattle for the past two years, enjoying the local produce and relishing that northwest flavor. If you read and see what’s going on around us, younger generations want to eat healthfully, and they connect fresh and local with that.

PB: Do you face unique issues when procuring local produce? For example, is it more complex to ensure food safety controls? Do you partner with local farmers to create special deals, etc.?

Miskimins: Food safety is always an issue with local farmers. We need to get boots on the ground to determine specs, packing options, how much they can supply, etc. Maybe they can supply 30 stores in Dayton, Ohio, or Nashville, Tennessee, and it means us giving them solid commitments.

PB: How does organic produce fit within the mix? Is there an initiative in Kroger’s produce department to increase organic SKUs?

Miskimins: I can tell you organic is extremely important. Are we growing organic? The answer is, absolutely. One initiative is to continue to boost the category. It’s one of the fastest growing categories in the produce department. We need to continue to look at individual stores and expand varieties. Increasing SKUs is part of our objective to grow the organic selection we offer our consumers.

I would tell you if we have eight or 12 feet of organic in a store, we’ll probably have 20 feet in the future. We’re going to be an organic destination. We’re still going to highlight conventional and build our multicultural initiative moving forward. You have to serve the communities.

PB: Let’s revisit the theme of community engagement… you expound on this multicultural initiative? Does this involve customizing produce selection, merchandising and marketing based on store locations? Does the employee makeup match those varying customer bases?

Miskimins: We have to know our customers in any given market. We do a lot of consumer research. Diversity is very true. It’s hitting right in my sweet spot saying multicultural. We have different educational programs, but most times associates know their customers, what they buy year in and year out. Our job is making sure we get the right product selection at the right times and at the right price.

PB: Kroger is a huge corporation. Often, independent stores contrast their customization and flexibility to big conglomerates mired in layers of bureaucracy and centralized, cookie-cutter buying. Kroger is a mammoth organization, yet seems to have an independent store mentality in many ways.

Miskimins: I’ve been in this company 32 years, and I can attest to the fact that most stores are viewed as individual units because the consumer looks at their store as a local store. They don’t see a big corporation. Each of our individual stores helps meet the needs in that area, but as a big company, we have to be sure we’re leveraging that.

PB: By leveraging, are you saying that Kroger can capitalize on the benefits that a large, sophisticated buying organization can realize, such as economies of scale, a wider supplier base, financial resources for research studies, etc.?

Miskimins: We do have the best of both worlds being able to do some things with scale and also remain community-based. We have a produce buying organization — Wesco Foods —that we manage from here. Our buying operation is comprised of a very talented group of individuals. The divisions know they can call Wesco and get what they need.

We can react to local markets very well, and Wesco is very intertwined to respond. If someone calls at the last minute, I have four loads that just came in, we can react to that, and take advantage of local deals and market shifts if we choose.

PB: I understand you have a floral background. Would you like to comment about floral and its sustainability efforts, recycling, etc.?

Miskimins: Our floral initiatives are in line with produce operations. Whether it’s recycling buckets or composting, we’re taking the same avenues in floral as in produce. Our floral group attends the same meetings. Sustainability strategies are aligned, staying true to Kroger’s core values.

PB: What most inspires you about Kroger and the produce department in the context of future sustainability goals? Do you have any insight you could provide industry executives as Kroger looks to reach new plateaus in sustainability?

Miskimins: I would tell you for me, it’s the people that bring me back. I wake up and want to come to work. To be in the produce arena and experience the change of seasons, the colors, the challenges of the perishability side, it really motivates me. I love to go to the stores and talk to produce managers and floral managers. That’s where I learn things. They’re telling me what the customers want, and it is constantly evolving and changing. We are driven on data, but we have to remember to listen to the customer.