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How Do We Build the Next Generation of Food Industry Leaders?

Sept. 3, 2020
Talking with Amanda Pollander and George Meyer, both of Elite Spice, about Amanda’s involvement in the University of Minnesota's Integrated Food Systems Leadership program and how it has helped her develop the skills to become a better leader.

Welcome to another episode of Food For Thought, a podcast where the Food Processing team takes you behind the scenes of the food and beverage industry.

This week, I sat down with Amanda Pollander, Sterilization Supervisor and George Meyer, Plant Manager, both of Elite Spice. Together we talked about Amanda’s involvement in the University of Minnesota's Integrated Food Systems Leadership program and how it has helped her develop the skills to become a better leader. You may remember hearing about the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Food Systems Leadership program – or IFSL – last year, when I talked with the program’s director, Jennifer Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt. 

During this episode, we take a deeper dive into the IFSL program to find out why manufacturers may want to consider it for their own employees.


Erin: Great. Amanda, George, welcome to "The Food for Thought" podcast.

Amanda: Hi, Erin, thank you so much for having us.

George: Yeah, thank you very much. We appreciate the opportunity.

Erin: Yeah, it's great to have you here. I'm gonna start off talking to you Amanda and have you explain what your role is at Elite Spice?

Amanda: Sure. At Elite, I'm responsible for the key food safety processes that we use to pasteurize our spices. We actually import spices from about 40 countries, so it's important to implement our own critical control points to reduce pathogens such as salmonella.

Erin: How has the University of Minnesota's program helped you in that role?

Amanda: Sure. So, using system thinking, as promoted in the IFSL program, has really helped me to connect with the broader importance of my job, as in the like why is it important to produce safe food. With my background being primarily in science, with biology specifically, I find that my thinking centers around research and technology aspects, and sometimes less so on the humanitarian aspect...so this program has really connected my everyday tasks with the broader importance of providing safe and nutritious food to the public, which in turn has made me even more passionate about my job.

Erin: Have you had any ‘A ha!’ moments or things you learned during the IFSL program that you recognize as integral to your role at Elite Spice?

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. Two reoccurring topics throughout the IFSL curriculum were sustainability...and that was whether it was sustainable agriculture or generally using sustainable practices, and food waste. These kind of were brought up several times throughout the program, no matter which section we were in. So I really found that interesting.

And in my personal life, I tried to live sustainably. So I was inspired to bring that into my work as well. So, as a side project, I've developed a sustainability initiative to kind of evaluate current practices at Elite, and then, looking into where we could add more sustainable practices. So...and George and other Elite management have been super supportive of that and helpful in collecting information and developing ideas. And in the future, I plan to look into food waste and see how or if we can manage that as part of the program. But without the IFSL program, that wouldn't have even been on my radar.

Erin: Amanda, can you walk me through or break down the process, the thought process you had of entering the IFSL program?

Amanda: Yeah, so I was super thrilled to be nominated by George for this program. I personally had always wanted to continue my education but didn't know of a graduate program that would be both beneficial to my career and my personal interests. So, as I have limited experience working in the food industry, and especially in being such a niche sector of the global food system, I was excited to gain a greater understanding of the food system in its entirety.

Erin: Wonderful. So, George, question for you. Amanda mentioned that you nominated her for this program. Can you elaborate on the process Elite Spice went through to work with the IFSL program?

George: So, a little bit of background about Elite Spice, we are, you know, a family-owned company. Been around since 1988. And many of the key people, managers here have worked with the owners in previous businesses, previous spice businesses. And, you know, we kind of grew up in the spice business. So, you know, I've been in spices longer than anything else, longer than I've been alive, other than in the spice business.

So it became clear to us that we needed to kind of manage the next generation of supervision and leadership here, at Elite. And I came across, you know, an email newsletter about the University of Minnesota program, and I thought this would be perfect. Amanda is in charge of one of our key systems and it's kind of the hub that all of our programs rotate around. And being able to send her to a program like this was really beneficial for us. So, I went to management ownership and said, "Look, I think that this is important for a number of reasons and I think Amanda is the one that we should send." And they agreed.

Erin: Wonderful. Amanda...so, did you go to Minnesota for...or was it...

Amanda: Yes, I was able to go to Minnesota last September right when the program started so I could meet my cohort members face to face. And it was really nice because the class is virtual, to see my classmates and actually get to know them on a personal level before working with them via the computer for the rest of our session.

Erin: George, what is it about Amanda that sticks out to you? You said, you know, you've been at Elite Spice for a while. So what is it about Amanda that sticks out to you as the IFSL program cohort, compared to maybe other team members at Elite Spice?

George: Well, as I previously alluded, she's in charge of like our key food-safety system, you know, preventive controls now, with the advent of FSMA, are, you know, really really important in food production. And because spices are a small portion of food but they're also a very important part, nobody wants just boiled chicken, you know, you need to have seasonings in things.

So, the spice industry, for a long time, has used various pasteurization processes, but some of them are a little difficult to explain. It's not just like a retort where you put things in an oven and measure the time and measure the temperature, there are different parameters. And the old-timers in the business, and what Amanda does now is something that I did during my career, you know, we know it works because it worked because it always has worked. And that's really not acceptable in today's world. 

So, becoming a little bit more professional about the explanation and understanding of the processes, being able to relate that to customers and to regulators was very very important in Amanda's position. And we, as a company, thought that this program would really really help with those aspects of what she needed to do.

Erin: Amanda, is there anything you learned through the program that has helped prepare you to work through this coronacoaster?

Amanda: Sure. I think the part of this program that really helped me during COVID was the leadership-growth aspect. It's been super helpful. I mean, as a food manufacturer, we're deemed essential, so we've been open and in operation throughout this whole process. And while we've been fortunate to thrive during this time due to our position in the food system and infrastructure in place, there was obviously still fears and uncertainty surrounding the virus that affected all of us. The soft leadership skills that I've developed through this program really helped me to effectively communicate and empathize with employees during this time. And also, by doing self-assessments and taking inventory of my subconscious leadership style, I was able to adapt and provide support by being physically present and listening to the concerns of my employees. And, in fact, maintaining our jobs and coming to work brought a sense of normalcy for many of us. And I believe that's helped kind of foster the family mentality that we value so much and the ability to lean on each other in these uncertain times.

Erin: That normalcy is so important for sure. Before we sign off for this particular episode, are there any parting words or insights? Whether it be George, Amanda, either one of you. Anything that you wanna share with the audience before we sign off?

Amanda: Yeah, I would just like to add that the program gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from other industry professionals. And that's really been invaluable to me. It's so easy to get caught up in your company or your job, so, being able to see everyone's different careers and perspectives on topics like food safety has really opened my eyes to just how complex the global food supply is. 

George: And as far as Elite's thoughts about it, we were very pleased with how the program went, the things that Amanda has been able to bring back into work. And we're just very pleased with the whole thing.

Erin: That's great to hear. And it's very exciting to hear how this program has worked for both you, Amanda, as well as the team at Elite Spice. Thank you both for sitting down and talking with me today, distantly of course. And have a great day.

About the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program 

Delivering a comprehensive and actionable educational experience, the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) Program broadens the knowledge and understanding of the global food supply chain and interdependencies across the food system, while promoting critical thinking and problem solving across disciplines. IFSL is a Post-Baccalaureate Regents Certificate program designed for working professionals and bridges the gap between traditional food system education and a professional leadership program. Download a program brochure or schedule a consultation call for more information.