Three-way Partnership with Cal Poly Students Shows Potential for a More Sustainable Future in Grocery Stores

By Lauren McEwen

Cal Poly Agribusiness Professor Ricky Volpe and the students of the AGB 404 “Food Retail Management” class are partnering with the Ratio Institute and the California Grocers Association Education Foundation to improve local grocery retailers’ margins by implementing simple sustainability practices.

The 44 Cal Poly students visited eight stores in San Luis Obispo for Ratio Institute’s pilot program with the intention of providing a third-party sustainability certification at the local managerial level. This sustainability certification includes an inspection, report and recommendations for the store owners, all conducted by the students who follow the workbook as provided by the Ratio Institute.

The inspections include assessing the way coolers are stocked to ensure proper airflow, where light sensors are and the amount of natural light in the building, among other critical elements.

Volpe said that the certification “signals to consumers that they are shopping in a place that is making an effort to be a steward of the environment.”

The recommendations made by the students in this three-way partnership are not only environmentally sustainable but also sustainable economically. After collecting data from the inspection, the students put the findings into a report with recommendations for the store owners. The implementations are at no cost to the grocer. “For an independent supermarket, an organization like Ratio in collaboration with California Grocers Association can go a long, long way towards educating independent grocers what the most effective way is to abide by sustainability regulations and along the way reduce their costs,” Volpe said.

If this pilot program with Cal Poly garners positive results, Volpe said that the California Grocers Association will likely adopt Ratio’s sustainability certification as a benefit for its members.

Third-year agricultural business major Siraj Subedar said that the opportunity to inspect local supermarkets is rewarding as it exposes a side of agriculture that wouldn’t be experienced in most other classes. “It is fascinating to me that there are so many unique practices that are incorporated in different businesses and that there is so much more to a grocery store than what meets the eye,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed being able to learn about grocery stores and the factors that make a successful grocery store because it’s something I would’ve never had the opportunity to do otherwise.”

The California Grocers Association Education Foundation has supported many endeavors in the Agribusiness Department including funding student travel, offering research opportunities, providing guest speakers for classes, and sharing data sets. “They are probably the best professional partnership I’ve had at Cal Poly,” Volpe said.

The students are also engaging in unique Learn by Doing opportunities. Now, his students are conscious of the managerial practices at supermarkets and of the steps needed to move towards awareness of sustainability in the grocery sector.

Tyler Thompson, a third-year agricultural business major said that his experience in the class has been one of growth and inspiration. “I’d say that my understanding of the industry has greatly improved to the point that every time I go grocery shopping, I subconsciously make mental notes about things I see within stores that relate to our discussions in class,” he said.

The caliber of enthusiasm is high when the students are engaging in the project with Volpe. Both students said that their professor is critical in their commitment and excitement in interacting with the local supermarkets. “Professor Volpe has been amazing. He accompanied us on our store visits and has been extremely helpful and you can really see his passion for this type of work come out during lecture and that makes it even more fun and interesting to partake in,” Thompson said.


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