Kelly Leighton hit the ground running when she joined Look East at the beginning of 2023. Previously, Kelly had been a consultant for The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a Look East client. Now as vice president at Look East, she works exclusively with CFI, a non-profit organization dedicated to building trust in today’s food system.
We asked Kelly about her background and what she’s looking forward to in her new role.
What about the mission of The Center for Food Integrity attracted you?
The Center for Food Integrity has a unique opportunity to play a very powerful role across the entire food-ag value chain. This is the time for the food system to convene and collaborate because the clock is ticking on climate change and any number of issues. Because CFI works in a pre-competitive environment, we can bring together sectors across the food chain to work together to speed progress toward a more resilient and trusted food system. From an early age, I developed an interest in and passion for how our food is grown, processed, packaged, marketed and ultimately consumed. I turned that curiosity around the “how”, into a career articulating the “why” and the “how-to” ~ a career steeped in the importance of honest communication, building and fostering relationships and driving meaningful dialogue around shared interests and values. My role with CFI allows me to take my passion for food, meaningful dialogue and strategic thinking and help our member organizations effectively engage with their most important audiences.
Tell us more about your interest in food science and how it got started.
My grandparents built and operated a canning business on their family farm in Georgia where they grew, canned and sold Southern-style vegetables under the brand name of Margaret Holmes, my great-grandmother. As a child, I often visited my grandparents’ farm and I was fascinated by the entire end-to-end process and that sparked an interest in the science of food – understanding how the food was grown, harvested, produced, the chemistry and how the nutrients of vegetables are retained through the canning process. That nutritional interest was directly tied to my participation as an athlete in college, where I focused on health and wellness and the benefits of the food I was putting in my body. So though I’m not a food scientist by trade, my continued interest in the science of food stems from my desire to understand the nutritional elements of the food we eat, the role food plays in nourishing our bodies and minds and now, as a parent, how the food I’m feeding my kids impacts their wellbeing.
What was your first job in the working world?
I had the opportunity to work for the San Diego Chargers in their media relations and PR department. As an athlete, that resonated with me on many levels, but it also gave me an understanding of the Chargers as a brand that represented something important to so many people. After I finished grad school, I started working in sports marketing and that was my first intersection with major food brands that activated through sporting events. As a consumer, I wanted to understand what the brands represented and how that tied to my decisions to purchase their brands.
Now that you are at CFI, what is your primary role?
I focus on growth and engagement. I’m helping develop strategies to engage prospects and to better serve our members by supporting their initiatives to build trust in today’s food system. Working with Executive Director Mickie French, we have defined four strategic focus areas of research and insights, identifying emerging food trends and issues, supporting organizations to more effectively engage with their stakeholders and create connections that support knowledge-sharing and collaboration around shared interests, values and issues. And with our new strategic vision newly launched, we’re engaging with our members and with other stakeholders in the food system in meaningful ways about the value that CFI can bring to these organizations.
It’s clear that you are excited about it what’s happening at CFI.
Definitely! There is an opportunity to reshape the narrative. What meant something to consumers even 10 years ago is completely different now. We need to understand how to talk about food and agriculture in a meaningful way. We’re in an environment with highly charged, politicized conversations. At CFI, we want to engage in a way that diffuses the tension and allows us to have productive conversations built around shared values and the issues that matter. We want to humanize what’s happening in the food system, whether that’s big food, local food, emerging tech, retail or anywhere along the food value chain. With CFI’s four focus areas, I’m really excited about our new strategic vision and with Mickie’s leadership, our opportunities to support our members and other stakeholder organizations to help build consumer trust and to speed progress towards a more sustainable, resilient and trusted food system.
There’s one more thing I’m really curious about. You and your family now live in Minnesota. How does a Georgia native survive Minnesota winters?
We love Minnesota and it’s a great place to raise a family. So we’ve embraced it – we participate in winter sports, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. But … it’s also great that we have family in the South and we strategically time our visits to them in January and February to break up the monotony of the long winter season. I have to admit, having Easter egg hunts with my kiddos in the snow is new to me and I’m not sure I will ever get used to it!