This Gator is leading ambitious green efforts at the Golden Arches, from helping the burger behemoth lower its carbon footprint to ensuring 100% of McDonald’s coffee is sustainably sourced. “It all comes back to agriculture,” she says.
When Kendra Levine was an eighth grader in Orlando, her science teacher gave the class a writing assignment: argue for or against human activity as the primary driver of climate change. Levine argued so convincingly that natural causes, not humans, were at fault, her teacher held up her paper as an example for the class.
But as she listened to the teacher read her essay out loud, Levine had a terrible, sinking feeling:
“I realized the most deeply rooted reason why I thought it couldn’t possibly be due to human causes is because I was really terrified,” says Levine (BSA ’08), “– terrified that people could cause so much damage to something as huge as a planet.”
From that moment, Levine knew she would devote her life to environmental issues. Today, the 33-year-old bilingual alumna from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is working to “green” the world’s largest restaurant corporation, through McDonald’s new Scale for Good initiative. As the climate action lead for the company’s U.S. supply chain, Levine is overseeing plans to ensure the Golden Arches meets its ambitious climate target: reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain by 31% by 2030.
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.
— Kendra Levine —
And even as she prepares to take on a broader role in January – supporting all things supply chain- and sustainability-related in McDonald’s Latin American business unit – she still is overseeing McDonald’s global efforts to sustainably source 100% of its coffee while helping small growers in Latin America adapt to climate change.
Championing people and the planet is a dual passion for Levine – and she credits UF with empowering her to believe she could do both.
“I went to see [UF sociologist] Dr. Kristin Joos in my freshman year,” remembers Levine, “and she told me, ‘If you want to work with the environment, you will definitely be impacting people. They’re inextricably linked.’
“This lightbulb went off in my head, and I realized, ‘I’m going to be able to do this!’”
Cow Burps & Carbon Hoof Prints
While McDonald’s is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its U.S. restaurants and offices by 36% by 2030 – by installing LED lighting and energy efficient kitchen equipment, and switching to 100% sustainable packaging, for instance – those changes are not Levine’s domain. She is in charge of greening everything that happens before a delivery truck rolls up to a Mickey D’s restaurant.
Her team’s strategies include optimizing fertilizers at farms where crops are grown, reducing electricity consumption at processing plants and warehouses, and using fewer miles and cleaner fuel to transport products to McDonald’s 15,377 North American restaurants. Each link in the supply chain offers opportunities from McDonald’s to shrink its carbon footprint by nearly one-third between 2015 and 2030.
The burger chain says its total Climate Action efforts will prevent 165 million tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere by 2030 – the equivalent of removing 32 million cars from the road for one year.
One priority area to tackle is how McDonald’s produces its beef, which the company says accounts for 29% of its greenhouse gas emissions. McDonald’s has invested $4.5 million in university research to study alternative grazing practices, Levine explains. One promising method is modeled after how herds of bison roamed the Great Plains; grazing animals are moved from pen to pen so the soil has a chance to recover and absorb more carbon.
Researchers are also varying feed rations to improve cattle digestion, thus reducing the amount of methane that cows produce and burp out.
“About 90% of a cow’s methane comes out the front end,” Levine helpfully explains for those who envision another exit route.
Sustainable grazing might not be possible or economically feasible for all of McDonald’s beef suppliers, Levine admits. But the company is determined to lower its carbon “hoof print” by these or other means. Today McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest buyers of beef (using 1.6 billion pounds of beef in 2017 alone), so whatever company-wide polices it adopts will have a global impact.
Being part of such a massive effort to combat climate change gratifies Levine, as she told UF/IFAS in April 2019:
“What’s most motivating to me is driving impact at scale,” she said. “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.”
Poli-Sci Wake-Up Call
Kendra Levine was born in Orlando in 1986, the daughter of licensed therapist Donn Levine and Cher Levine, a corporate executive. Kendra joined big sister Raechel (BABA ’03) in a typical suburban childhood, far from the cattle farms and coffee plantations she would one day visit.
“My family had zero connection to agriculture – like ever,” admits Kendra, recalling her surprise upon entering the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) in 2004 when she discovered most of her classmates came from generations of farmers.
“I remember thinking, ‘this whole class is full of good farmers, and I have never met any farmers,” she says. “‘I have no idea where my food comes from.’”
In her first political science class, Levine was shocked to learn about recent human-rights atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide (1994), in which around 800,000 Tutsi were killed in 100 days, and the Bosnian War (1992-1995), which included the Srebrencia massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in a single day.
That UF course was instrumental in directing her life, she says: “I realized then I really wanted to do something that impacted not only the environment but also people.”
A close friend convinced Levine that majoring in food and resource economics at CALS was the best way to combat poverty and to support the environment.
“The largest group of impoverished people in the world are smallholder farmers,” says Levine, referring to those whose farms support a single family and include a mix of cash crops and subsistence crops. These farms number about 500 million worldwide, and their households comprise a large portion of the world’s poor who live on less than $2 a day. Helping these farmers meet their basic needs and sustain and grow their farming businesses is key to ending extreme poverty on a global scale, Levine says. And, she noted, “They have a strong impact on the environment.”
While in college, Levine took action to alleviate food scarcity in Alachua County. After interning one summer at the DC headquarters of The Campus Kitchens Project, she and a friend, Natalie Sosa (BS ’12), founded a Campus Kitchens chapter at UF. Students use on-campus kitchen space and donated food from UF cafeterias, sorority and fraternity houses, and local restaurants to create meals for social service agencies.
Levine’s efforts earned her the CALS Alumni and Friends Award and the university-wide Woman Leader of the Year Award in 2008 – validating that she was on the right path.
“I didn’t start Campus Kitchens with the intention of getting any recognition for it,” says Levine. “But it was exciting to see that people recognized there was value in this type of work.”
Power of a Soap Packet
After earning a Bachelor of Science in food and resource economics in 2008, Levine spent the next five years in Central America and Africa, helping smallholder farmers.
In Guatemala, Levine worked with the nonprofit Fundación AGIL to train farmers on good business practices, including how to obtain Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) certification, a prerequisite for selling products to many international markets.
As a program manager for the One Acre Fund, she improved food production and business models for 7,500 farmers in Kenya, helping them produce drought-tolerant crops in mid-rainfall areas.
While in East Africa, Levine became aware of large corporations’ power to address vital sustainability problems. Even a simple intervention could have a big impact on issues like water shortages and hygiene, she observed.
“I saw little soap packets made by Unilever that were being sold to the subsistence farmers I worked with,” says Levine. “This soap allowed them to use less water when they were cleaning their laundry.”
That experience inspired Levine to dream bigger: She would find a way to engage more corporations in these issues.
Back in the States, Levine earned a Master of Science in agricultural, food and resource economics from Michigan State University in 2015. MSU was also where Levine met her future husband, Cuban-born mechanical engineer and metallurgist Kesman Valdes. The two tied the knot in September 2016.
Exposure to MSU’s supply-chain curriculum gave her practical insight into how to drive human rights and environmental progress on a large scale: promote sustainable practices at the independent farms and ranches that supply raw ingredients to major food and restaurant businesses.
“It all comes back to agriculture,” says Levine.
Coffee, Tea or Sustainability?
Since joining McDonald’s in 2015, Levine has spent most of her time in its Chicago headquarters, supervising the “dream team” that is tackling the company’s climate reset all along the U.S. supply chain.
But not all of Levine’s success stories unfold in the boardroom. She regularly flies to Latin America to visit coffee fields and oversee the McCafé Sustainability Improvement Platform (SIP), which helps farmers meet rigorous certification standards and protect their lands and livelihoods. There will be even more of that, come January.
“I love that I can continue to have a connection with the smallholder farmers,” she says.
Those efforts are paying off: in early November 2019, one year ahead of schedule, McDonald’s announced that they had met their commitment to sustainably source 100% of the coffee for their U.S. restaurants; by 2020, that figure will reach 100% globally.
“One hundred percent of our tea in the US is on track to be Rainforest Alliance certified next year as well,” Levine adds.
McCafé SIP is also helping farmers reduce their water consumption, plant new coffee trees and rehabilitate millions more, says Levine. Those strategies are necessary for growers’ resiliency since by 2050 climate change is expected to reduce the world’s coffee-growing area by half.
I love that we’re a brand that isn’t exclusive, that we are there for everybody, creating these feel-good moments. But our customers can’t feel good about McDonald’s unless they feel good about who we are as a company and our impact on the planet.
— Kendra Levine —
Skeptics may wonder, Can a fast-food giant that made its fortune on cheap burgers and throwaway wrappers reinvent itself as a leader in addressing climate change?
Levine and her McDonald’s colleagues say not only is it possible, it is imperative:
“As a company, we have clearly stated publicly that climate change is the biggest environmental issue of our times,” says Levine. “Our product – food – is dependent on agriculture, and agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate and weather. It is vital we address these issues because we need an assured supply for our customers.”
“I love that we’re a brand that isn’t exclusive, that we are there for everybody, creating these feel-good moments,” she adds. “But our customers can’t feel good about McDonald’s unless they feel good about who we are as a company and our impact on the planet.”
In June 2018, Levine received McDonald’s coveted President’s Award for producing a global sustainable sourcing guide. This past April, she was one of four UF CALS alumni saluted as 40 Gators Under 40.
“UF is a large university with so many incredible alumni, and I feel very honored and humbled to receive this award,” Levine told the Gator Nation. “This was a wonderful recognition of the work that I’ve done and those who’ve helped me along the way.”
Eighth-grade Levine – and her science teacher – would be proud, too.