Q&A with “40 Gators Under 40” Honoree, CALS alumna Kendra Levine
Kendra Levine, an alumna from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), leads climate action strategy development for the McDonald’s Corporation. In her role as sustainability manager, Levine works with the company’s U.S. supply chain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She earned her Bachelor of Science with a major in food and resource economics in 2008. While at UF, she founded The Campus Kitchens Project student organization, which collects food from food service providers to create meals for social service agencies.
Most recently, Levine was honored as an outstanding young alumna from the University of Florida in 2019. The award recognizes alumni under the age of 40 whose achievements positively reflect The Gator Nation. In an interview with Levine, she shared how she followed her passion for the environment and humanitarian development, which led her to her current career working as a sustainability manager for the McDonald’s Corporation.
- What first sparked your interest in the environment and sustainability?
It all started in eighth grade. My science teacher did a presentation on global warming. She said we would have to write an essay at the end of the unit stating our thoughts on whether global warming was due to human activity or natural causes. My essay argued the case that global temperatures were rising because of natural causes.
Our teacher picked the most compelling arguments from each side of the global warming debate, and used my essay to support the natural causes argument. As she was reading my answer to the class, I had a sinking realization that I selected this side of the argument because I was scared of the implications of what it would mean if global warming was due to human activity, that humans could cause so much destruction. I knew my answer wasn’t factually accurate.
We are having a massive impact on the planet. The idea of human activity causing damage was something that scared me and that I thought we needed to rectify immediately. I felt a responsibility to do something about it. From this class, I knew I’d be working in the sustainability space in the future.
- What brought you to CALS and the UF/IFAS food and resource economics department?
I came to study agriculture and food and resource economics because agricultural development is in the nexus of environmental and social impact.
I was struggling with finding a career where I could impact the environment as well as poverty alleviation at the same time. I had a friend my freshman year who was working on his master’s degree in food and resource economics. He helped explain how food and resource economists could address both.
I initially came into UF as an environmental science major, then changed to major in political science, then again to natural resource conservation, and finally settled on food and resource economics. I minored in international humanitarian assistance and development, also through CALS, as well as Latin American studies.
- How did you get involved in living abroad and working with small holder farmers before your current work with McDonald’s?
I knew that was work I wanted to do during my time in college. I had shared that aspiration with a number of folks. My friend’s mom’s cousin worked for U.S. Agency for International Development in Guatemala. He put me in touch with a colleague who then helped me connect with the ag sector in Guatemala. After working 15 months at an agricultural non-profit’s central headquarters in Guatemala, I transitioned to work directly with famers in the field. I gave trainings to small holder farmers on good business practices, including how farmer groups can form legal associations.
From there, I moved to Kenya through a different organization and spent three years working with subsistence farmers on the production of their staple food crops. Our goal was to help them grow and save enough to feed their families all year and send their children to school. We provided an agricultural bundle of goods to farmers on credit, which included improved agricultural inputs like hybrid seed and fertilizer, access to financing, crop insurance, water sanitizer, de-wormers for children, etc.
- How did you come to work at McDonald’s in sustainability?
After my international experiences, I went to Michigan State University to earn my master’s in agricultural, food, and resource economics. My goal was to gain more knowledge before returning to the international development field. However, while in grad school I decided I wanted to work for a large food or agricultural corporation that wanted to improve sustainable production practices in their supply chain. I wanted to help create demand for sustainable practices through market means. The outcomes I was aiming for were the same as in my previous roles, but I would be working from the other end of the supply chain.
When I looked into what companies were already doing something around sustainability, I was impressed with McDonald’s’ ambitious goals and commitment to sustainability. They had a great team in place to achieve those goals. Their sustainability department is housed under their supply chain department; integrated into the business function where their biggest impacts are.
- What are some of the exciting projects you’ve been part of at McDonald’s?
Those would be the two current projects I’m working on! As our U.S. climate action lead for the supply chain, I lead the strategy to meet our science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s really exciting because it’s directly tied to what led me to get involved in this arena since eighth grade.
Additionally, I’m leading our global coffee sustainability efforts at McDonald’s. This allows me to stay connected to impacting small holder farmers, where I started my career.
- What is most satisfying about your career?
What’s most motivating to me is driving impact at scale. I have always looked for that in the jobs that I’ve had; trying to have as much impact as I can. It’s a real privilege.
- What is your biggest piece of advice you would share with a current or future CALS student who may have similar ambitions as you do?
Seek advice and let it open new doors. I learned about opportunities I couldn’t conceive of from wise people. At the same time, know your North Star passion and be relentlessly persistent in going after it from multiple creative angles. There have been times when I chose not to listen to voices of those who told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t do what I had set out to do, and then I proved them wrong.
Through curriculum and experiential learning, students in the food and resource economics major develop the skills to analyze complex situations such as the allocation of natural resources to meet the needs of people in local, state, national, and global communities. Students study sales, finance, marketing, management, environmental policy, law, international trade, math and economics. Learn more about this major on the food and resource economics department website, and learn more about all 23 majors in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences on the CALS website.