Check ‘Imposter Syndrome’ at the door
Lori Nikkel had humble beginnings in Ontario’s farm and food space. Her career in agri-food started as a food insecure mom with three young boys who needed food, Nikkel explains.
“I started a child nutrition program at my boys’ school as a result of being low-income and needing to ensure my own children had healthy food every day,” she says. “This was my pathway into the agri-food industry, it happened very organically.”
Fast forward to today and Nikkel is the CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food-rescue organization. Last year, even during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Second Harvest provided approximately 62,000 meals per day all made from rescued food.
In addition, she led the non-profit to recover more than 22.3 million pounds of nutritious, unsold food last year. The organization rescued and recovered produce, meat and dairy products before this food became waste and redistributed it to a broad network of 2,300 social service organizations.
As a result of her success in growing this non-profit across the country, Nikkel was recently named one of the Top 25 Women of Influence.
Nikkel took every opportunity she could to learn about food insecurity in her local community and abroad.
“Before Second Harvest, I worked at FoodShare and this organization provided my foundational understanding of food systems. I was overseeing child nutrition, but the programs there were so much broader and included things like urban agriculture, community and school gardening, farming, food literacy, food insecurity, etc.,” Nikkel says.
She travelled internationally and domestically to understand how food systems operate and the profound effects inadequate nutrition has on vulnerable populations.
“I was introduced to a lot of things very quickly. I had an opportunity to visit Brazil in 2005 when they had a food minister and were doing some very exciting food systems work. I travelled across Canada and got a much better understanding about what was happening in rural, remote and other urban areas outside of Toronto,” she explains.
As a result of these experiences and ongoing learning, Nikkel had a clear vision for Second Harvest when she joined the team seven years ago.
“When I first arrived, Second Harvest was a small Toronto charity. It was grassroots but had amazing potential. The organization was missing out on incredible opportunities by not focusing on food loss and waste and the environmental imperative of keeping good food out of landfills,” Nikkel says.
“I came from the hunger space and know that feeding people is not creating food security. Giving people food is essential, but we have systemic problems causing poverty that we need to fix so people don’t need charitable food programs at all.”
Now, Second Harvest is an environmental organization, with a vision of no waste and no hunger and a mission to grow an efficient food recovery network to fuel people and reduce the environmental impacts of avoidable food waste.
Their work includes looking at our food supply chain and systems to better understand the movement of food from farm gate to dinner plate and the inherent causes of food loss.
Prior to 2019, “we didn’t even know how much food we were losing,” Nikkel said. So, Second Harvest, in partnership with Value Chain Management International conducted research and drafted a report of their findings.
They found that nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada – amounting to 35.5 million metric tonnes – is lost and wasted annually. Of that, 32 percent – equalling 11.2 million metric tonnes of lost food – could be avoided and includes edible food that could be redirected to support people in our communities. In fact, the value of this potentially rescuable lost and wasted food is a staggering $49.46 billion, the report says.
Nikkel spearheaded this work because she wanted quantify food loss and waste. Indeed, this report is the first of its kind in Canada.
“Most people don’t see food loss and waste or know where it is happening. Through research, we now have a better idea of food loss and waste across the supply chain and can better inform public policy drivers to correct inefficiencies”, she says.
Now that food supply chain stakeholders have these numbers, they can improve. But consumers also have a role to play in food waste reduction.
“Understand where your food comes from and value it more,” Nikkel says.
“Food is your life. Stop wasting it and treating it is a commodity. You can’t live without farmers. If they go away, we will be in trouble. Very rarely do people think about farmers until there is a problem with food supply.”
Nikkel has been instrumental in the rapid scale up Second Harvest operations, rescuing and redistributing surplus food in every province and territory in Canada. To climb to this executive level, she was confident in her abilities to enact change in an area where she saw real issues.
“Women always undervalue themselves. It’s a thing that we do,” she says.
“I do so less now by a million per cent. I know I am awesome and I want other women to know that they are awesome, too. Own it!”
Hard work and drive helped Nikkel in her career pursuits, but passion contributed to her immense success in seeing her goals through to the final product.
“I would give this advice to anyone interested in any career in any space: make sure that you are passionate about your job and that you really want to do it,” Nikkel explains.
“The best way to do that is to connect with a lot of people and ask a lot of questions. Every time I try something new, I ask myself, ‘who are the people I need to know?’ and leverage their networks. The learning curve goes from 10 years to one.”