Celebrating 10 Years of the Fellows Program: Nicole Tocco Cardwell

Nicole Tocco CardwellNicole Tocco Cardwell
Fellow from May 2012 to October 2015

Bon Appétit campus attended: Duke University (for graduate school)

Current job: Manager of strategic initiatives for Bon Appétit (which also includes managing the Fellows)

Skill/wisdom you gained from the Fellowship: Read the fine print of every policy/commitment/claim by an organization, because the meaning and integrity is always in the details. If something isn’t specific, it usually doesn’t have much meaning.

Did the Fellowship shape your career choices? When I was in graduate school and hoping to work on sustainability in the private sector, I kept hearing the same thing: “You can’t make my business more sustainable unless you understand my business.” Between my experience managing a Bon Appétit café and my time as a Fellow, I actually got to know the business of food service (at least, the way food service is done at Bon Appétit!). I was ready to start the hard work of helping to improve upon what the company had already built. As manager of strategic initiatives, I get to do that day in and day out – while also helping to orient and foster young food systems activists at an important point in their careers.

Memorable experience as a Fellow: My first year as a Fellow, the Equitable Food Initiative was going through the process of creating their standards, and Bon Appétit was participating and supporting them as one of the founding members. They only had one staff person at the time, so Chief Strategy and Brand Officer Maisie Ganzler volunteered my help with some research, and eventually my participation in the “Scheme Committee,” to help administratively as the group tackled the huge task of writing a third-party standard from scratch.

The “Schemers,” as we later referred to ourselves, were board members representing the diverse groups involved in creating EFI: buyers, growers, pesticide advocacy groups, consumer advocacy groups, and farmworkers’ rights groups (including the country’s largest farmworker union). The countless hours I spent among them in hotel conference rooms around the country over the following two years will always stay with me. I had a courtside seat to a complex series of discussions: leading experts in their field(s) arguing through the variables that were most important in terms of farmworker treatment and safe handling of food, and attempted to come to a compromise. It felt like I was watching change happen: soaking in all I could as I quickly typed notes and interrupted the group here and there to clarify where we had landed and repeat back proposed language.

Advice for current food-activist students: Choose to work together, not against. When something is challenging or you’re told it’s not possible, ask why with the genuine intention to understand – that will get you a lot further than assuming bad intent and never getting to the complex problems beneath the surface.

Read more Fellows 10th Anniversary interviews: