Vice President of Produce and Floral, Wakefern Food Corp.
Within Wakefern/ShopRite’s overall sustainability mission, produce-related programs play a key role. The produce department has been a cornerstone in many of the company’s winning strategies. Derrick Jenkins, vice president of produce and floral at Wakefern Food Corp., shares his thoughts on sustainability from a produce perspective, and as an active industry proponent of environmentally friendly solutions.
PB: How did Wakefern’s sustainability platform grow to a prominent element for the stores?
DJ: Locally grown has become a popular movement symbolically linked to sustainability, and issues of reducing carbon footprint, protecting the environ-ment and eliminating food waste. So sustainability went from not even a concern to one of our core values, particularly in the produce arena.
PB: How have you tackled this shift in business?
DJ: We made a big push into locally grown. Some products are sourced through Wakefern, where we at corporate, work directly with local farmers, while individual members also have separate locally grown programs.
From Baltimore, MD, to Buffalo, NY, most of the members do local programs at the store level, and then there are certain products in season we provide in our warehouse. Customized programs really go deep using local farms in the communities.
Our locally grown campaign continues to grow, with a 15 percent increase every year. I attribute a major reason for the growth to internal marketing and advertising, and point of sale displays.
PB: Please elaborate on the merchan-dising and promotional activities.
DJ: From May to November, we advertise what’s local in season through a weekly circular, complemented by merchandising and signage in the stores. One of the things we do that’s been very successful is a farm stand barn display, which the advertising department designed, Grown Fresh — locally grown for ShopRite. This program is all locally grown. We have other signs listing ‘locally grown today’ and that really resonates with consumers.
Members engage with local farmers in their communities. Farmers may do store visits, and the store’s customers often know them and their families.
PB: When you highlight locally grown freshness, how do you avoid the risk of consumers interpreting other produce as less desirable?
DJ: We really have to educate consumers. Sometimes the strawberries are peak of season and look great, and then two weeks later they’re not good, but consumers may not understand why. Consumers have misconceptions that produce is grown with a lot of bad pesticides. Pesticides are extremely costly. Growers are constantly trying to figure out ways to reduce pesticide use and find safer alternatives.
PB: Is food safety a concern with these smaller local farm programs scattered among different members?
DJ: Food safety is the highest priority for Wakefern and all its members. We bring local farmers into our facilities for educational/training workshops on best practices, GAP certifications, regulations and guidelines for what we want through our food safety programs. The farmers are involved with our food safety initiatives and understand the issues. They all read about the criminal case against Jensen Farms linked to the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak, and they want to provide the safest produce possible. The risk is too high. Food safety is the biggest concern for our industry.
PB: Do you work with your suppliers on sustainability programs as well? For instance, do you help them in creating more sustainable operations? Are there standards you require of your vendors?
DJ: We don’t mandate sustainability measures to our suppliers, as they are taking the lead on their own. The growers and shippers are looking at more sustainable packaging. Sustainability issues are much more prominent, particularly with the growers. Some are fourth and fifth generation, and they want to keep the businesses going.
They live off the land and the product. Good Agriculture Practices and sustainable farming are in their corporate DNA. We go on field trips to visit growers, and they are very concerned about the environment, whether it’s installing advanced drip irrigation systems to reduce water use or solar panels to run their packaging shed more efficiently.
PB: How else does that DNA translate to sustainability at the corporate and member levels?
DJ: We also support our local food banks here. When we have produce that is not suitable for the stores, the food banks come with trucks to pick it up. Wakefern has had a strong relationship with the Hillside, NJ food bank for many years. And members also have their own programs with local food banks. We don’t do composting here— at least for now. I can’t speak to composting programs at different member stores. Much depends on whether it’s logistically and financially viable.
PB: In weighing costs and benefits of various sustainability initiatives, are there instances where a more sustainable measure might negatively impact the produce department?
DJ: You can see our produce departments have a lot of LED lighting. Lighting plays a vital role in merchandising, so it’s a major factor when revamping fixtures to reduce energy costs. We haven’t noticed any adverse effects in that regard. We use LED lighting in the cases and it really works well.
PB: For context, could you share more about the process of collaboration between Wakefern corporate and individual members in maximizing sustainability goals? How does the structure work?
DJ: From corporate level, we have a Produce Committee meeting on Tuesdays with members, who are also owners, where we discuss everything from competitive strategies, to the advertising and marketing division programs to inclement weather conditions impacting different members. We have buying offices that work in Florida and also in California, so there is a diverse set of issues. We use Telepresence video conferencing, and present all the issues. We discuss new initiatives, share best practices, and learn what’s new in the industry. The dialogue back and forth is very good. No decisions are made in a vacuum; we come to them collectively. Some are very strategic on a large scale, others tactical based on location.
Because of our co-op nature, our programs must be customized. What affects someone in New Jersey may not affect someone in Maryland. Grape toma-toes on sale could mean a lot in New Jersey, but vine tomatoes are preferable in Maryland. Mother Nature adds another element. It’s a constantly evolving business, and I’m listening to a wide range of people, including feedback from my wife, relatives and friends if the tomatoes are green. Karen Meleta [vice president of consumer/corporate communications at Wakefern] will come back from the super-market and call me: ‘What’s wrong with the strawberries today?’ The job is really seven days a week 24/7.
PB: That’s a heavy schedule. How do you manage industry commitments in addition to your everyday ones?
DJ: I’m vice chairman of PMA. We have board meetings twice a year, and many other opportunities to connect with global leaders to focus on industry-wide issues. I take off my Wakefern hat to work on solutions impacting all of us. We address sustainability, food safety and ways to increase produce consumption as an industry.
PB: How does sustainability shape your individual sensibilities?
DJ: It’s in my head all the time. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I want to secure the environment for generations to come. We can do the produce business without a lot of pesticides by practicing smart pest management. We have a healthy message for consumers.
PB: What do you consider the biggest sustainability issue confronting the produce industry?
DJ: Water is a key concern, and a major problem down the road. The population is growing around the world. We must focus on more efficient water usage and making sure it’s safe. California is really in a drought emergency and facing big problems with water this year. We take water for granted, but as the population continues to grow, and we need to feed more and more people, our water supply will be drained. We need to take action as an industry now.