A deeper understanding of where our food comes from at Iowa-based Frontier Co-op

Sarah Nolet helped Frontier Co-op, the Iowa-based wholesaler of natural and organic products, strengthen how it collects and analyzes data on resource consumption. She also helped develop an action plan for how the company could improve its sustainability performance.

The question I tried to answer was: How, as a for-profit company, can you do right by the planet while also being practical?

Before the summer of 2015, Sarah Nolet had barely set foot in the Midwest. Sarah, a California native, spent her college years in Boston and launched her career in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“But as someone who’s passionate about food and sustainability, I realized that Silicon Valley and Cambridge couldn’t be my primary experiences,” she says. “Since so much of our food is grown and processed in the Midwest, I knew that I needed to spent time there, to get to know the people and the culture, and gain a deeper understanding where our food comes from.”

For Sarah, her summer internship at Frontier Co-op, the Norway, Iowa-based wholesaler of natural and organic products, was professional kismet. “It’s a cliché in every movie, book, and country song that cornfields are everywhere in Iowa,” she says. “Now I know: they really are everywhere.”

Sarah helped Frontier Co-op refine how it measured its performance on certain sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. She conducted qualitative and quantitative research—including benchmarking existing performance metrics against peer companies—and helped the company analyze and consolidate its data on resource consumption and waste/emissions generation.

Sarah also helped develop an action plan for how the company should shrink its environmental footprint. “Big picture, the question I tried to answer was this: How, as a for-profit company, can you do right by the planet, do what’s best for the environment, and be a strong corporate citizen, while also being practical?” she says. “I learned that perfect should not be the enemy of progress. Incremental positive steps make a big difference and build momentum.”

Sarah’s internship was part of the Sustainability Internship Program, a program supported by the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan and made possible by a generous gift from Anna Gabriella C. Antici Carroll  ’92 and Joseph D. Carroll ’91. The opportunity to do hands-on, sustainability work at a real company was one of the things that drew her to MIT, she says.

The funds also allowed Frontier Co-op to invest in sustainability in a way it would not otherwise have been able to, according to Seth Petchers, the company’s Sustainable Supply Chain Manager. “It would have been hard to make the case to hire an outside consultant to do this project,” he says. “The internship subsidy from MIT Sloan made my ask go down easier.”

Seth says he “would absolutely hire another MIT Sloan student” in the future. “We were lucky to get Sarah—she's smart, talented, and she knows the subject matter very well,” he says. “I didn’t think of her as my intern; I considered her my colleague for the summer. And I am now spearheading new programs based on her work.”