Since the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in May, I’ve been thinking about what the food industry has done to improve racial equity over the past year.
It’s not an easy question to answer. Even harder is evaluating if what the companies have done is meaningful. Many have pledged to take action in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, but pledges need to be followed by actual progress. So I looked into the 10 largest food manufacturers in North America to see what moves they have made.
I reached out to the U.S. branches of Anheuser-Busch InBev, Coca-Cola, General Mills, JBS, Kraft Heinz, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, asking for information about the goals they set and the progress they made over the last year to improve the health and economic outcomes of Black communities.
Shared metrics and reporting frameworks for DEI goals are missing
Sorting through the information on company websites, sustainability reports and through my conversations, what I ended up with was a long list of pledges, partnerships and programs — including donations, staff training, scholarship funds and supplier diversity programs, among other approaches.
The first thing that stood out was the apparent lack of shared metrics and reporting frameworks to compare companies’ ambition and progress. Because of the many disparate efforts and timelines the industry uses, it will be nearly impossible to assess whether the initiatives will add up to meaningful change. A shared public-private agenda for dismantling systemic racism in food manufacturing will be necessary.
Second, I noticed that some companies thought harder than others about the specific difference they can make. Systemic racism, like the climate crisis, is an enormous and complex challenge no company can be asked to solve on its own. But every company holds a vital piece of the puzzle. The ones who recognize this sweet spot, in addition to funding the work of critical racial justice organizations and supporting progressive policy, caught my attention the most. Let’s take a closer look at some of the innovative approaches companies are using.
1. Setting measurable targets for Black representation in leadership
Increasing the percentage of Black members in executive and management teams is essential to give visibility to Black employees in an organization and diversify culture and business strategy. So far, Coca-Cola has set the most ambitious and transparent goal, based on my research. The CPG company aims to align its employee population with U.S. census data across all team levels by 2030. For senior management, this means increasing Black leaders from 8 to 13 percent. This goal is notable because it’s objective and guided by the country’s actual demographic makeup rather than a decision that aligns primarily with business interests and constraints.
Other companies committed to expanding Black representation include PepsiCo, General Mills and Mars. PepsiCo is set to increase the proportion of Black managers from 8 percent in Q1 2021 to 10 percent by 2025. General Mills aims to double its Black managers. Mars has a less specific goal of increasing racial minority representation in management by 40 percent.
2. Providing financial incentives for DEI achievements
DEI practices aren’t only about visibility and team culture — finances matter, too. Nestlé is doing the most innovative work in this realm by linking executive pay and performance to DEI outcomes. This practice has been discussed for sustainability outcomes for years and is finally gaining momentum. But the corporation didn’t disclose any details about this practice that could help assess the impact it might have, set an industry standard or encourage other companies to follow its example.
The first thing that stood out was the apparent lack of shared metrics and reporting frameworks to compare companies’ ambition and progress.
3. Boosting supplier diversity programs
For food companies, engaging suppliers on environmental issues is essential and becoming the norm. Suppliers should be just as involved when it comes to social impact. From what I could tell, Coca-Cola is taking the lead on supplier diversity programs. It plans to double its spending with Black-owned businesses over the next five years, reaching at least $500 million. PepsiCo follows suit with a pledge to spend $350 million by 2025. And Smithfield planned a 14 percent increase in purchases from minority-owned businesses by 2025, totaling $105 million. It also will provide $10 million over the next three years for financial and technical support to minority farmers.
While these commitments are significant, they lack transparency. How were the numbers chosen? What percentage of Coca-Cola’s total spend is going to diverse suppliers? Compared to Coca-Cola’s minority employment goals that are clearly aligned with objective statistics from the U.S. census, these numbers feel pulled from thin air. It would be more coherent to set the same objective goal across all DEI pillars.
4. Investing in education and training opportunities
Better access to quality education is key for more Black people to become innovative entrepreneurs, managers and corporate executives. As such, education is a foundational pillar for DEI progress, requiring adequate investment. Several companies are stepping up to provide scholarship and grant programs that create a more diverse talent pipeline for the food industry.
Smithfield committed $500,000 to students interested in food, agriculture and natural resource careers through scholarships, summer stipends and other programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Nestlé and Pepsi also have HBCU partnerships, and PepsiCo will invest $25 million in college scholarships, generally. Anheuser-Busch launched a $100,000 scholarship program to encourage Black students to pursue STEM careers, preparing them for jobs in the brewing industry. Mars offers scholarships of up to $25,000 per year to Black students interested in food industry careers. These initiatives are a start, but likely won’t suffice to meet the increasing demand for diverse talent, similar to the shortage of sustainability professionals already unfolding.
JBS, Tyson and Kraft Heinz lag behind
Not all companies have listened to the demands of advocates, protestors and their employees over the past year. While Tyson has donated $5 million to the cause and told me it integrates DEI practices "in all aspects of the workplace," it hasn’t backed its commitment with quantified goals. Kraft Heinz doesn’t have any programs focused on racial equity to date. Yet a spokesperson told me the company is planning to include the issue in its upcoming ESG report at the end of July.
JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian meat processing giant, is the only one of the 10 companies for which I could find no evidence of work on this issue. It declined to comment and does not talk about racial justice issues in corporate communications, despite just having settled a 10-year lawsuit over racial and religious discrimination in its meatpacking plants with a $5.5 million pay to employees.