Sustainable Food Lab

Sustainable Food Lab

Sustainable Food Lab


The Main Challenge

How can a “laboratory” be created in which

1. living examples of a sustainable food supply chains are developed, and
2. the conditions needed to support such activities within organizations are institutionalized?



Primary Partners


The Sustainable Food Lab is a co-initiated, independent, multi-stakeholder effort with the Sustainability Institute and has provided leadership, process design, and facilitation from its conception in 2002, to its launch in 2004, through the end of its first phase in 2007.

The partners continue to work as members of of the Secretariat providing event design and management and process support to this large-scale Change Lab involving food system actors “from farm to fork,” including business, government, and civil society leaders from Europe, North America, and Latin America.


• The Sustainability Institute
• Reos Partners
• Spaces for Change (LeAnne Grillo)



What is the Sustainable Food Lab?

The Sustainable Food Lab is an ongoing, long-term, systemic intervention to create living examples of mainstream sustainable food supply chains.


The Project

The Food Lab focuses on:


• Building a cross-sectoral community of leaders by bringing them together at summits and on learning journeys to reflect on what is happening and needs to happen in food systems.


• Piloting value chain innovations by developing new business models for sustainable trading relationships, finding ways that agriculture can mitigate climate change impacts, and discovering how to re-regionalize food supply sources.


• Supporting and strengthening organizational sustainability strategies by providing in-house training and coaching.


• Sharing learning, by creating resources such as the “Changing Vocabulary of Food” report and the “Healthy Value Chain” case book and Toolkit.



Key Activities


Some of the initial projects, which focused on framing (developing new ways of viewing the food system so that mainstream citizens can connect their values to sustainable agriculture), commodity standards (institutionalizing buyer and investor screens for major commodities to drive adoption of better social and environmental processes), and sustainable fisheries (improving market access for small-scale fishermen and developing a model for sustainable aquaculture), have been completed or have reached a logical end point.


Some were “composted”, such as the Business Coalition (a partnership of food-related companies formed to identify best practices and to improve the social, environmental, and financial performance of supply chains), to support other initiatives such as the development of healthy value chains. Others continue to flourish with the support of the Sustainable Food Lab Secretariat (Hal Hamilton and Don Seville, directors; Stephanie Daniels, Daniella Malin, and Susan Sweitzer, full time; LeAnne Grillo, Karen Karp, and Joseph McIntyre, part time).

One longstanding project is the Sustainable Livelihoods Initiative, which focuses on improving the competitiveness and sustainability of small-scale farming systems. This program continues to identify and address important barriers to the participation of small-scale farmers in national and international food supply chains. Two areas of emphasis include creating new business models and building market demand for ethically sourced products. Projects in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are contributing to a body of work that can be replicated in other food supply chains. In Africa, with support that the Gates Foundation is providing for the Rainforest Alliance, the Food Lab is creating new market opportunities for bean farmers in Ethiopia, cocoa farmers in Ghana, and produce farmers in Kenya and Uganda.

As new needs continue to emerge from Food Lab participants, more projects are being initiated. Recently, the Lab has begun to develop and test ways to measure and incentivize low-carbon agricultural processes throughout the food supply chain.




These collaborative efforts take time, which may, in fact, be one of the reasons the Food Lab is successful. The Lab is an ongoing, long-term, systemic intervention in an age-old system, and while time is not an endless resource, the Lab members are not looking for quick fixes. Just recently, a Learning Journey held almost three years ago in Honduras bore fruit through a collaboration among Sysco, Oxfam, CIAT, and the SFL. Partner communities in Guatemala are planting almost four hectares of broccoli and peas as part of an effort to bring high-value markets to poorer Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan. While it sounds like a small start, the partnership is extremely important, and the processes developed can ultimately be replicated and scaled up.


In addition to creating the “laboratory” in which living examples of a sustainable food supply can be developed, the Food Lab is also working to institutionalize the conditions needed to support such activities within organizations. Part of the goal is to embed sustainability practices through personal and organizational capacity-building and leadership development. Lab members are also considering ways to influence policies based on what is happening “on the ground”.

The Sustainable Food Lab continues to evolve. Many lessons have been learned about the potential for positive impact of such an undertaking, as well as the challenges that must be overcome. From creating a safe container where people can come together as learners and say “I don’t know”, to building trust and respect across sectors, to taking those first steps and doing something “real” together, to merely developing patience and giving this work the time it needs to fully cook—all of these are crucial to the success of the Food Lab. Peter Senge has called it “the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of”.


What Participants Have Said


“[The Sustainable Food Lab is] the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of.”

–Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning


“The Food Lab is a safe space in which we can admit that we don’t have all the answers—which is a prerequisite to allowing new solutions to emerge.”

–Member of Lab Team from a large food producer


“The people who stuck with the Lab are who’s-who of what’s going on. They are people who are way ahead of the curve, and that keeps attracting more such people along the way. I didn’t ‘get’ [sustainability] at all at the beginning, but I am starting to get it now. People saw potential in me and helped me, so now I feel like a convert and have made this my life’s mission.”

–Member of Lab Team from a large food retailer


“Being part of the Food Lab is the right thing to do, the good thing to do—for the world. It’s also good for our businesses. There’s a competitive advantage for SYSCO to be involved, but we can’t fully realize that competitive advantage without working together with others in this group to mainstream sustainability.”

—Larry Pulliam, Executive VP, SYSCO