When leftover restaurant food doesn’t sell or we throw it away because it’s expired, where does it go?
That’s a question that for years played on the mind of Samantha Kenny, a Master’s in Sustainability Management (MSSM) graduate from American University’s Kogod School of Business.
Instead of mulling over an answer, she’s turned that question into a career. After graduating from Kogod, she turned an internship with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) into a full-time role as a senior program officer for food waste.
Wasting no time tackling environmental issues
Samantha has always been passionate about sustainability. After graduating from American University with an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and working with the university’s Office of Sustainability during that time, she knew that a master’s in sustainability was the next step for her.
“I was really excited about an interdisciplinary program where I could work to address conservation and sustainability problems at scale,” says Samantha.
During her time on the university’s student sustainability team, she gained experience doing waste audits in residential halls and class buildings. The master’s in sustainability degree presented an opportunity to learn more about the impact of excess waste on the planet.
What really helped her was that she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. “I was pretty gifted at going through the trash,” laughs Samantha, who was born without a sense of smell, making her the perfect candidate to get involved in waste management.
She’s chosen to tackle a problem that needs to be urgently addressed. On average, around 40% of the food that's grown is wasted every year, according to research by WWF and Tesco.
“Food waste creates immense problems for the environment,” explains Jennifer Oetzel (pictured), a professor in sustainability management at Kogod. “If you’re not consciously composting fruits and vegetables, then the waste goes into a landfill, and if it's not properly aerated and treated, it doesn’t produce any benefits.”
Food in landfills decomposes to methane, which can be responsible for up to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to a large chunk of the climate crisis.
The issue of wasted fresh produce is just the tip of the iceberg—wasted canned goods, meats, and the packaging of these products exacerbate the problem due to the labor and energy used in their manufacturing and disposal.
“Somebody can make a huge difference tackling the challenge,” believes Jennifer.
Landing a World Wildlife Fund job after a master’s in sustainability
At Kogod, Samantha dived deeper into sustainability issues in the MSSM program, learning how to design projects with triple bottom line benefits in mind, helping people, the planet, and businesses simultaneously.
Kogod’s STEM-designated master’s in sustainability management combines courses in green business, management, and sustainable finance with sustainability-focused topics, ensuring graduates consider environmental matters holistically.
“The master’s in sustainability taught me how to think in an intersectional way to tackle waste projects,” notes Samantha.
Students in the program have four career tracks to choose from, including sustainability executive, sustainability entrepreneur, sustainability consultant, or sustainability policy/communications executive.
The location in the heart of Washington, D.C., also means students are in proximity to an array of environmental institutions and organizations.
“This interaction between policy, business, and sustainability is what makes the program so unique, preparing students to work across governments, businesses, or nonprofits,” notes Jennifer.
During her first year, Samantha was able to put what she had learned into practice during an internship with WWF. This is when she began to focus more specifically on food waste management in the hospitality and food service sector.
“What drew me to WWF is the great breadth of experience and expertise housed within the global WWF network,” says Samantha, who landed a full-time role after graduating and now works for the organization as a senior program officer for food waste.
She’s the global coordinator of WWF staff working on food loss and waste, supporting regional and national teams to address food loss and waste throughout systems.
She says practical team activities and the tight-knit cohort in the MSSM program provided the opportunity to learn how to leverage the skills of an entire team. The international capstone project also allows students to travel to study sustainability issues in European countries like Denmark or Sweden, renowned for their sustainability expertise.
“The number one skill I learned from the MSSM was how to build multidisciplinary teams that are up to the challenges we're facing—no one can have all of the skills at once to tackle such systemic problems,” she notes.
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Kogod School of Business - American University
Washington - United States