Leaning on new technologies and sustainable farming methods to increase our production of food without harming the environment is critical.

Limiting food waste to the best of our abilities and diverting organic waste from landfills and finding ways to repurpose it.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lara Ramdin.

Dr. Lara Ramdin, Chief Innovation Officer at Dole Sunshine Company, has an extensive global track record in R&D, product development and innovation. A passionate creator, a design thinking practitioner and trainer, Dr. Ramdin is a fierce advocate for young women in STEM which she has exercised through her mentor roles in both The Girls’ Network and 1MMentors organizations. At Dole, Dr. Ramdin has built her R&D team to over 70% women globally, developing innovations and solutions to the increasing demand for healthy, affordable food which will nourish current and future generations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am a biologist/immunologist by training and originally thought that I was going to have an academic career working in pulmonary research. After a one-year post-doc, I thought gosh, I don’t think I am cut out for this, working in academia is a true vocation. From there, I decided to apply for a Cell & Molecular Biologist role at Unilever and “fell into” innovation when I was talking to someone from the development centre in Germany about my research. Without knowing it, I was already formulating claims and stories that we could potentially use for body care. This guy, who is still a mentor/friend to this day, brought me to Germany on a secondment for 6 months to develop body care for Dove with him. I ended up staying there for 5 years — my love-affair with product development and innovation was ignited!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve lived and worked in about 7 different countries outside of the UK, so there are so many different stories I could refer to. From hand-washing laundry with a consumer in India (she told the translator that I’d clearly never washed my own clothes before — I have by the way, I just didn’t meet her exacting standards) to interviewing for a new job and moving countries during the peak of COVID (try getting out of the UK just before the third lockdown) — each one is a “stitch” that contributes to the “tapestry” of my career so far.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

A pivotal moment for me was when a mentor encouraged me to move from Research to Product Development — I mentioned before that at this point my passion was ignited. It was the first moment where I really understood empathy and putting the consumer at the heart of everything that I do. I think that was the start of my journey towards design thinking as well. As a people leader, one of my biggest learning moments was when a member of my team transitioned from being a man to a woman. I don’t think either of us knew the best way to approach this from a work perspective (it was quite some time ago and things have thankfully evolved significantly). Neither of us had never experienced a situation like this before and were navigating the best way to approach it, but I knew that I wanted to make work a safe and comfortable space for her. She taught me a lot about compassionate leadership, empathy and the adage “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” We are still friends to this day and when I think of her, I am always reminded that you never know what someone is going through.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many! The guy I mentioned who brought me to Germany, Juergen Kielholz, taught me how to do product development, brought me to the brand Dove and completely changed the trajectory of my career. He took a chance on me but somehow, he knew that I would love product development as much as I do. At that time, our boss Keir Steinke (who also continues to be a mentor) did nothing but encourage and support me. Arancha Cordero — again, to this day, I am not sure what I’d do without her — she is the fiercest advocate I know for female empowerment and leadership in the workplace. Daniel Annese, a titan in the beauty industry, was just the best teacher when I worked at Estee Lauder and is frankly, just a wonderful human. Maluwa Behringer — one of the savviest R&D leaders I’ve had the fortune to work for and learn from. David Blanchard and Pier Luigi Sigismondi — both are excellent guides, mentors and leaders — but more importantly, allow me the space to be my authentic self.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Grit, creativity and curiosity. Each trait was instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I tell my team all the time that change is the only constant — and to focus on developing your own personal resilience — so Angela Duckworth’s “grit is like living life as a marathon, not as a sprint” is a go-to. Personally or professionally, it’s important to pace oneself so navigating the “troughs” in life is easier and the bounce-back is quicker.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Food deserts are defined as areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. It means that there is minimal access to full-service grocery stores, farmers’ markets and other vendors that sell delicious fruits and vegetables. On the contrary, there are usually food swamps, which include an abundance of fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores that primarily sell junk food. Food deserts and food swamps often go hand in hand.

Jackson, Mississippi, is unfortunately a prime example of this. Jackson possesses a unique makeup of both food swamps and deserts. There are only 20 grocery stores, and of those stores, less than 5 percent stock locally grown fresh produce. In contrast, there are 70 fast food restaurants, 60 convenience stores, and 150 gas stations that sell mostly unhealthy options. This has contributed to Jackson becoming one of America’s unhealthiest cities.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

One of the most concerning consequences of food deserts is the impact it can have on the physical and mental health of individuals and communities. When people don’t have access to nutritious food, it can increase the chances of obesity, diabetes, and lead to other health problems.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

The reality is that food deserts have existed for a long time. In modern history, the issue has been exacerbated by growing inequity in the United States and around the world, and the coronavirus has made this issue even more complex and extreme. The growing problem of food inequality, which existed before the pandemic, has reached crisis proportions and needs a collective effort to address. Dole’s commitment to increase access to sustainable nutrition will play a role, along with our efforts to eliminate food waste.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

In 2020, in response to the increasingly unequal access to nutritious food as a result of the coronavirus, the Dole Sunshine Company launched the Sunshine For All program in Jackson, Mississippi. It is a community-centric program dedicated to bringing fresh and packaged produce, nutritious meals and educational opportunities to communities that need it the most. We partnered with local chefs and organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi, Up in Farms, Smoothie King and Foot Print Farms to creatively tackle the challenge of getting nutritious foods into under-served areas in Jackson. Elements of the program include weekly pop-up farmers’ markets at Boys & Girls Clubs located in food desert neighborhoods, offering affordable, locally grown produce. It was also important for us at Dole to ensure we were making a change that can be sustained long after our program ends, so we’ve created learning gardens to inspire kids to a lifetime of healthy eating with fruits and vegetables. We’re excited about the program’s impact in Jackson, but we’re not stopping there. Using Jackson as a template, we’re planning to bring Sunshine For All to more communities in need around the world. This is one step in the company’s commitment to The Dole Promise, which aims to provide access to sustainable nutrition for 1 billion people and move towards zero processed sugar in all products by 2025.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

One recent project that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of is Dole’s Sunshine For All Fund, an annual fund that will support strategic partnerships and innovation in the crucial areas of sustainability, food access and waste. We know that we can’t bring about true transformation in these areas without collaboration. We want to join forces with like-minded partners, to fight against food injustice around the world. So, we’ve been seeking out partners — from entrepreneurs, start-ups, strategic thinking to social impact enterprises and NGOs — to bring their expertise in food production, nutritional science, compostable packaging, supply chain, logistics, sustainable agriculture and fast-moving consumer goods to bear. We truly believe we will be able to address gaps of affordability and food waste, as well accessibility and acceptability — fulfilling of course, The Dole Promise.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”?

  1. Finding a solution will take intervention from private institutions.
  2. Leaning on new technologies and sustainable farming methods to increase our production of food without harming the environment is critical.
  3. Limiting food waste to the best of our abilities and diverting organic waste from landfills and finding ways to repurpose it.
  4. Supporting community garden endeavors.
  5. Developing sustainable solutions that allow communities to be self-sufficient.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Penney Ainsworth, Boys & Girls Club Central Mississippi President, has long been an advocate for the community of Jackson and expanding their access to nutrition. Through her role with the Boys & Girls Club, Penney has been instrumental in supporting families impacted by food insecurity and food deserts.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

At the Dole Sunshine Company, we feel strongly that a move toward zero fruit loss, zero fossil-based plastic packaging, as well as net zero carbon emissions, are all important components in addressing food insecurity, increasing access to good nutrition, and ensuring we’re protecting our environment through sustainable farming practices. I’d like to see legislation passed that supports these goals that should be commonplace for other corporations and institutions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I couldn’t be more passionate and committed to innovation that unlocks nutrition equality and accessibility. I want to work with and be surrounded by people who are willing to collaborate and learn in different ways. I am one of many change agents here at the Dole Sunshine Company and in my role, I am open to a variety of different operating models because I know that we don’t have all the answers and recognize that we can’t make a real change on our own. I also want to make my contribution to strengthening the future of female leadership. My team here in the US is 100% female and globally we are over 70%. I really want to nurture this #femalestrong team and others to be the best leaders, they can be.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Only one person? Impossible! So many people I admire and respect. To name a few….

Kamala Harris — because…well, it’s Kamala and I’d love to talk to her about accessible nutrition and nutrition equality (now THAT’s a collaboration ?)

Jennifer Dounda — a rockstar scientist. I think I’d probably be very intimidated (in a positive way!).

Aisling Bea — sharp, witty, eloquent writer, comedian and talented actress. And because she’d be great craic!

Stephen Fry — I could listen to him talk for days.

Jason Sudekis — because who wouldn’t want to talk to the creator of Ted Lasso?

And..Brene Brown — because even though we don’t know each other, I feel like she gets me.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn and you can follow Dole Sunshine on LinkedIn and Twitter to continue to read about how we’re acting on our commitment of making nutritious foods accessible for 1 billion people by 2025.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.