Melissa Melshenker Ackerman is the Mid-America regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
If you harken back to the early days of the pandemic in the U.S., you might remember images of farmers dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk, plowing over onions and destroying fresh food they could no longer sell. The abrupt closing of restaurants, hotels and schools left many farmers without any buyers for their crops.
“The idea that our customers would close their doors overnight and that 60-80% of our business would go away was not something we ever thought would happen,” says Melissa Melshenker Ackerman, President of Produce Alliance, a national produce procurement and management company. “We had to figure out very quickly how to pivot and do something with this product that was sitting in warehouses across the country.”
While the Produce Alliance’s traditional business is managing the supply chain from field to fork for restaurants, universities, airports and more, it began working with its distributors on ways to help the food service supply chain, evolve its business and keep as many people as possible working.
Impacting local communities
In 2016, the Produce Alliance founded a philanthropic organization to serve as a first responder to emergent humanitarian crises including hurricanes, floods and fires. Since its founding, the Produce Alliance Foundation has raised funds and provided immediate supplies to hard-hit communities.
“When the pandemic began to unfold, I was able to see how these efforts could be used to help not only communities, but the entire food service supply chain that was deeply suffering as the world came to a halt,” says Ackerman.
Seeing frontline health care and essential workers tirelessly battle COVID-19, Ackerman had an idea: help keep the food service supply chain open by delivering nutritious produce boxes to workers coming off of long shifts. “There really needed to be some innovative thinking on how to get the product off the ground and into these warehouses, and figure out what to do with warehouse workers who were not being used and idle trucks that were sitting in parking lots across the country at our distribution centers,” she says.
The Foundation initiated its first COVID-19 Produce Box program in April 2020. The program purchased excess produce from its suppliers, deploying furloughed workers to assemble boxes at its distributors and using its refrigerated trucks to deliver nearly 500,000 pounds of fresh produce to drop sites across the country. With the success of this initiative and the growing food lines around the country, the Produce Alliance turned its attention toward helping those in need.
Tackling food insecurity
As much as 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, yet millions of Americans do not have enough to eat. During the pandemic, those numbers got worse: One in eight adults in the United States now say they are food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With so many industries being crippled by COVID-19, I could not focus solely on the success of my own business, especially when I saw so many struggling with something I could help alleviate. ”
— Melissa Melshenker Ackerman, President of Produce Alliance share
Ackerman knew that she could help feed the nation and fill the void left by volunteer gaps at food banks during these extraordinary times. She began shifting efforts to address food insecurity.
“With so many industries being crippled by COVID-19, I could not focus solely on the success of my own business, especially when I saw so many struggling with something I could help alleviate,” says Ackerman. “By finding ways to improve the efficiencies of food distribution, we put food that would otherwise go to waste into the hands of hungry people.”
Securing money to scale
“The true obstacle was trying to figure out funding,” says Ackerman. “To be able to purchase food is an expensive endeavor. There’s just so much need, and the need is always so much greater than the amount of funds available.”
After securing initial funding through private donations, a GoFundMe page and a foundation grant, the Produce Alliance Foundation raised more than USD650,000. Knowing that its networks’ reach was much larger, Ackerman applied for funding through the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The government-funded program partners with national, regional and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of food service businesses, to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat products from American producers of all sizes. Distributors then package these products into family-sized boxes and transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.
While Ackerman knew the Produce Alliance had the capabilities to help on a large scale, she still had to become a primary contract holder with the USDA. She quickly learned, as she puts it, “to be patient with results when you’re trying to build something new and rewarding.” Securing government funding proved to be a lot more difficult than Ackerman anticipated. After not receiving a contract in the first two rounds, she reevaluated her approach.
“When it gets tough, you cannot give up,” Ackerman says. “You need to keep going when morally you believe that you’re doing something that’s right. And when you have the skills and the business acumen to make it happen, you need to keep pursuing it.”
That perseverance paid off. In the third round, the USDA purchased nearly USD80 million worth of goods from the Produce Alliance to be delivered across 16 states, and another USD168 million for nine states in the fifth round. By the end of April 2021, Produce Alliance will have distributed 7.2 million boxes nationwide. In total, they have distributed more than 216.5 million pounds of fresh food.
Feeding the hungry
The widespread, sudden loss of jobs due to the pandemic has made the demand for food greater than in years past. “It’s almost unconscionable how much the need is,” says Ackerman. “I’m doing my absolute best to hear the need and to disperse it evenly throughout the state and to the different organizations.”
Ackerman says they have been able to reach more rural, remote areas because food insecure organizations across the country have utilized school parking lots, school buses and religious organizations as pop-up distribution centers. A mother of three boys, Ackerman volunteered with her middle son at a local site. As he put milk inside cars with children his own age, she says, he finally understood the importance of what they were doing. Later, he, along with his siblings, collected the loose change in their house to buy boxes for children in need.
“It’s not only being able to organize all of this but to participate in it and to be able to be bigger than yourself and be part of something that is helping the world at large that’s so gratifying,” she says.
Having a support system
A strong support system is critical to being able to step up and fill a need during a crisis. Ackerman relied on her family, executive team and personal and professional networks to find new ways of working, secure funding and build out the new business. “At a time when we needed to have all hands on deck to try to make everything work in our traditional business, they allowed me the flexibility to work on this new model that ultimately was successful, but for many months it was questionable,” says Ackerman.
By rising to this unprecedented challenge and turning an opportunity to support the business into an opportunity to help others, Ackerman has deepened customer engagement and loyalty, creating an even stronger network for the Produce Alliance. “Many in my industry know how much we’ve tried to be a part of the solution,” says Ackerman. “A lot of the customers who we work with have similar goals to help those who need it the most. When you have a similar goal, it makes your relationship with that customer stronger in your traditional business, too.”
Pivoting the business model
After seeing its traditional sales venues shutter, the Produce Alliance had to initially pivot who its customers were and set its sight on reaching customers through different venues. The change worked because it was an extension of the organization’s existing capabilities.
Having many distributor members who already created split cases for repacking food and a cold supply chain made it easier for the Produce Alliance to redeploy its distributor members’ workers to assemble and distribute boxes with an assortment of items. Once it had secured a contract with the USDA, the Produce Alliance expanded its operations to procure meat and dairy, established new relationships and increased production.
“A lot of people have been able to quickly ramp up the type of boxes and accounts that they’re able to do, scale their business to come to the call and help make this model successful,” says Ackerman.
By making adjustments to its business model, the Produce Alliance has created jobs and job security for workers all the way down the supply chain. More than 600 people help construct and distribute the USDA boxes, resulting in more than 25,500 paid hours each week. Once the boxes are made, even more jobs are created from the truckers and suppliers to the “last-mile” distribution centers including food banks, churches and other local nonprofits.
“You shouldn’t be scared to take the chance of pivoting because it can take you in a great new direction that leads to a great path that you wouldn’t have thought,” says Ackerman.
Becoming a social enterprise
The Produce Alliance’s pandemic efforts have shifted the business toward social enterprise. Ackerman expects this to be an ongoing transformation, especially given the trend in business to support companies who make a social impact and consumers who hold companies to higher standards.
“We’re hoping that this program will continue to be shaped into a permanent type of solution,” says Ackerman. “We are also looking into other ways that we can use our cold storage across the country and our traditional produce procurement and management skills to help in this area on a national or local level.”
The experience has been so rewarding that they are starting new ventures as well as making strategic hires to achieve long-term sustainability. “You have to invest in it,” says Ackerman. “You have to have the right staff, the right infrastructure and the right funding in order to make it a long-term success.”
Ackerman’s long-term goal is to have sufficient funding to offer “a sustained box program in major cities across the country that is able to be customized for different cultural needs.”
She adds, “Being at the intersection of running a successful business and making an impact in the world is the best business decision I could’ve ever made.”