11/14/2011 12:17 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

The SUPERVALU of Giving Back

One of the most inspiring aspects of the fight to end childhood obesity and food inequality in the United States is the sheer number and variety of organizations that have taken up the banner and proposed their own creative solutions. The First Lady has pushed childhood obesity to the top of the national agenda with her Let's Move program; the USDA is calling for school lunch nutrition standards that do not consider tomato sauce a vegetable; grassroots organizations like Growing Power, Growing Home and The Plant are using abandoned space in Chicago to cultivate food and jobs and non-profits like Common Threads are teaching kids how to cook healthy meals. Not only have individuals, government agencies and non-profits been pursuing creative solutions to the problem, but private corporations have also proposed ways in which they are uniquely positioned to help.

On Monday I had the privilege to interview Craig Herkert, CEO of SUPERVALU, about his company's role in the fight for food equity. SUPERVALU, which is the 5th largest food retailer in the nation and operates 10 traditional retail banners including Acme, Albertsons, Jewel and Jewel-Osco and its discount format, Save-A-Lot, is one of the leading retailers working to eliminate 'food deserts'. Over the summer, the corporation announced that it would join Michelle Obama's Partnership for a Healthier America and pledged to open 250 Save-a-Lot stores in 'food deserts' over the next five years. The 14th store will open this month in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. Among the many residents of Lawndale, this new Save-a-Lot will also increase food options for Common Threads students and families at Bethune and Gregory Elementary schools in the neighboring West Garfield Park.

Not only is SUPERVALU working to open grocery stores in 'food deserts', they also recognize that the solution is not as simple as providing access to food: it is also important to make sure that healthy foods within the store are priced affordably and that customers have an opportunity to sample and enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. In September, the company initiated "Fresh Produce. Fresh Prices," marking down more than 200 fresh produce items by as much as a dollar a pound at many Jewel-Osco locations. Through their national partnership with Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger relief organization, they donate millions of pounds of food each year to help end hunger. SUPERVALU's initiatives are rooted in the idea that being a good corporate citizen is an ongoing responsibility, and this is a mantra that CEO Craig Herkert has lived by as well.

Before he began his current position at SUPERVALU in 2009, Craig served as the President and CEO of the Americas for Walmart's international division, where he worked extensively with Walmart's operations in Latin America. Values like healthy living, balance and respect that Craig promotes in his stores also figure strongly in his personal life and, like me, he believes that the family meal is the starting point for all three. He lives in the twin cities with his wife and two teenage children.

Here's what Craig had to say about philanthropy, food, and finding balance:

Winston Churchill said that "We make a living by what we get and we make a life by what we give." What does philanthropy mean to your organization?

As you know, we are a major food company. We either own or supply over 4,000 food stores across the United States of America. For that reason we've tried to focus our philanthropy on helping people eat and helping people eat well. That philanthropy takes the form of both financial giving and food donations through our partnerships with Feeding America. We give enormous amounts of food to shelters. What I'm most excited about is what we've been able to do through our Fresh Rescue program, which we work with Feeding America to implement. The program allows us to donate fresh food that might not be salable but is definitely still edible. As I know you are aware, giving people access to healthy fresh foods is as important as giving them access to food.

Tell me about the other programs that you're working on, like the Kid's Club or the zero waste stores.

A lot of grocery stores provide cookies or similar treats for children when they come into the store, and we have done this in most of our locations forever. Kid's Club continues the practice of making the store a welcoming environment for families, but flips it over to healthy foods. We give children in our stores a banana or an apple rather than a cookie. It fits in with our motto of helping America eat well. There have been plenty of studies that show the importance of developing healthy eating habits early in life. I have two teenage children, and one of the things that my wife Lori and I have done is encouraged healthy and respectful eating habits from a very early age. Now that they're in high school and can make more of their own choices they maintain those habits. Getting kids started early with good eating and helping moms and dads with that task is really important, and for that reason we love the idea of providing something healthy when you come in the store.

In terms of zero waste, there is an interesting link between that issue and the philanthropy that we were discussing earlier, in particular with the giving that we've done through Fresh Rescue. One of the problems that has actually vexed us the most as we try to get to zero waste is fresh food. There are a number of actions that a store can take to reduce waste that require changes in attitude but can be carried out fairly easily - for instance, recycling cardboard and plastic. What we discover ends up taking up a lot of our garbage space as we do our dumpster dives - and we do dumpster dives across the country - is organic and fresh food. The idea of taking edible fresh food and giving it to Fresh Rescue is beautiful because we not only provide healthy food to people in need, but we no longer have to put that food in the garbage, which is what's been happening in this industry forever.

The other aspect of reducing waste that is really challenging is composting. I actually brought this up at the lunch last week with the mayors. We can't compost at all of our stores and so it turns out that the last piece that helps you get to zero waste is finding community-composting centers. We have been working with communities on this issue.

The industry standard practice is that if you can divert over 90% of the stuff that would have been in the trash you're zero waste. Our goal right now is to get to 40 stores by the end of this year and I'm fairly confident we'll get there. We just had all of our presidents in last week and there's a lot of energy behind this. I was recently out at one of our leading stores in this area and the store director, Jackie Martini, was so proud of what her store has done. She actually took me to the back of the store and said, "This is where our compactor used to be." There is a deadbolt on that compactor now and nobody has the key except for her. You can no longer go into that back room and just throw stuff into the compactor. She took me out back and in the place of a huge compactor, there's one garbage can that gets picked up every two weeks. And next to that single garbage can there's a whole row of recycle bins and a whole row of composting bins that get picked up twice a week.

I'm really excited about where our team is heading on this one. It's important to remember that this is also good business. We have to pay trash haulers to haul away trash, so reducing trash makes sense for our shareholders as well. Zero waste is good for the community, it's good for the environment, and it's good for our shareholders.

Another SUPERVALU store owner who was particularly excited about his store's zero waste accomplishments took this video with his cell phone and posted it to YouTube:

Are there any personal experiences that have shaped your views on philanthropy?

I spent five years running significant businesses in Latin America. I think one of the defining moments for me was back in 2005 or 2006 when I spent a week living with a very humble family in a small community in Costa Rica. I was attending Spanish language school during the day and my primary goal with the home-stay was to strengthen my Spanish language skills. The family that I lived with didn't have a lot of material goods or wealth but they had dignity. That is what struck me most. I think that's one the things that you learn in this business: everyone needs to be treated respectfully, no matter their background or how much money they have. Dignity is so important.

Thinking back to the discussion that we had last week in Chicago and our commitment with A Partnership for a Healthier America to open stores in 'food deserts,' I love what stores like Save-a Lot can bring to these communities. They not only bring a great shopping environment and healthy food at affordable prices, but they bring dignity and respect.

My son who is a junior in high school actually spent this past summer living with a very humble family in Nicaragua. He came home thinking about how this family didn't have any money or material goods, but they had dignity and they had respect and they deserved both. What a great experience for him and hopefully it is something that will live with him forever.

It sounds like your family is a really important part of your life. Would you describe a table-side memory or your family's favorite meal to eat together?

We've had a ritual ever since our children were born that we eat dinner as a family. I travel quite a lot for my job, but when I'm not traveling I make it a point to be home for dinner. We eat together and we never have the TV on. For all the years that we've had our children, family dinners have been a wonderful time to talk with one another about our days, about what is happening in our lives and about where we're going. I'm also wildly fortunate that my wife loves to cook and is a great cook: she experiments and we eat her experiments! If you ask my kids, and certainly if you ask my wife and I, we love the experience of having dinner together.

What does healthy living mean to you?

I think it's all about balance. One of the things that I really liked about what the first lady has done both with A Partnership for a Healthier America and with Let's Move is that she has emphasized the fact that it's a combination of healthy eating and being active that leads to healthy living. With our business, we believe it's not about restriction, but instead it's about moderation and balance.

For me personally, it's also about moderation, balance and being active. For instance, I love chocolate chip cookies and I won't give up eating them, but I eat them in moderation and I stay active. I'm fortunate that I live in one of the best bicycling cities in America. I mountain bike and road bike and trail bike - I'm out on my bicycle till the snow hits.

How do you find balance in your life? With a job as demanding as yours, and a family, how do you find it?

I am fortunate in that I have a very supportive family and an amazingly supportive wife. I adore all of them and so that makes it easy to find balance because I want to spend time with them and I enjoy my time with them. I've lived long enough on this planet that I've seen people who have lost balance and it's not healthy. I suppose it takes a little bit of effort to find balance but I don't want to overstate how much effort it takes. It's making decisions. It's the decisions that we make as human beings to ensure that everything is in the right place. It's the decision that I make every day to leave the office at a reasonable time so that I can be home and have dinner with my family.

Linda Novick O'Keefe with Craig Herkert, CEO of SUPERVALU, Nov. 7. 2011