Providing Access to Food for People in Need with John Deere’s Laura Eberlin

May 16, 2023

In 2022, Laura Eberlin was appointed Global Corporate Social Responsibility Lead – Community Engagement & Enrichment for Deere & Company. In this role, Eberlin manages the John Deere Foundation’s global food bank strategy, which delivers nearly $3 million in grants annually to ensure equitable access to food for marginalized families and youth in John Deere home communities.

John Shegerian: Listen to the Impact Podcast on all your favorite podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, and of course, at impactpodcast.com. This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform, revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs and business leaders, engage is the go-to-spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage, or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m honored to have with us today, Laura Eberlin. She’s the Global Corporate Social Responsibility Lead of Community Engagement and Enrichment at the wonderful and iconic John Deere brand. Welcome, Laura to the Impact Show.

Laura Eberlin: Thank you so much, John. It truly is an honor to be here, and I’m really excited to be a part of this conversation today.

John: Well, we’re so excited to have you part of this conversation. Before we get going on all the wonderful things you and your colleagues are doing at John Deere, I’d love you to share a little bit about your background, where you grew up and how did you even make your journey to John Deere.

Laura: No, that’s a great question. I’ve been with John Deere for almost 23 years.

John: Wow.

Laura: In my current role for five years, and like many of us at John Deere, my family has roots in the company. My dad worked at our John Deere Waterloo works where we build our 7000, 8000 and 9000 tractors. He actually started working at John Deere two years before I was even born. You could say that John Deere was, and has been, a part of my life, my entire life.

John: Yeah. That’s so…

Laura: I went to a local college in Cedar Falls, University of Northern Iowa. When I graduated, I’m like, why not John Deere? It was an amazing company for our family growing up, and it only made sense that I wanted to work at John Deere as well.

John: How proud was your dad when you took your first job with John Deere?

Laura: He was super proud. We overlapped a couple of years before he retired, but very proud and still likes to chat about work to this day on the phone calls as he’s in Florida. But we love to stay up on the exciting things about the company and what we’re up to.

John: At John Deere, the fun part about your title, Global Corporate Social Responsibility Lead of Community Engagement Enrichment, it can mean a lot of things, and it does mean a lot of things that so many great brands that we’ve had on this show. At John Deere, what does that specifically mean for you, and so what are you specifically working on right now that we’re going to talk about today?

Laura: Yeah. Well, the title is a mouthful, so I will give you that. But in really simple terms, I get to find ways to help John Deere make our home communities all around the world better. John Deere has about 82,000 employees in over 30 countries.

John: Wow.

Laura: I get to work with our John Deere leaders, our social responsibility ambassadors, and our nonprofit partners, all who are working really hard to make a long-lasting impact on people’s lives and really create sustainable change in the communities we call home.

John: Good. How old is John Deere, by the way? It’s one of the most iconic and American brands that we’re all so proud of whenever we see the John Deere logo, which I see on your sweater there. We all are proud. I’m so proud of the brand. But how old is John Deere actually?

Laura: John Deere is actually 186 years old.

John: Wow.

Laura: We’ve only had 10 CEOs during that time, so just amazing continuity with our leadership and with the communities that we’ve embraced and lived and worked in for many years. But, 186 years.

John: That’s fascinating. Over 80,000 employees around the world, that’s incredible. Talk a little bit about, before we get into the specifics about what you do, sustainability and social responsibility? I take it that’s part of the DNA and culture of John Deere historically?

Laura: Absolutely. When you think about sustainability, it can mean a lot of different things to different people.

John: Right.

Laura: What we work in with CSR, it’s the social context and the economic context of how do you make sure that people’s lives are self-sustaining and prosperous, and they have a chance for success. That’s what we really try to do is create sustainability in our communities through its people and our neighbors and whom we choose to serve.

John: Let’s go into the specifics now. In terms of the global food bank strategy and the grants that you work on and things of that such, what does that mean for John Deere and what your day-to-day work is with your colleagues?

Laura: Yeah, so John Deere, simply put, wants to end hunger. We want to end hunger in all of the communities we call home. Our culture of giving goes back, we talked about this 186 year legacy…

John: Yeah.

Laura: …and our leadership team and our culture of giving really starts with John Deere, the man John Deere himself. It’s really cool when you dig into some of the books. But John Deere was a volunteer firefighter. He was a mayor of Moline, Illinois, which is where I’m sitting today. He was known for being an outspoken abolitionist. He helped start the YMCA in our headquarters community. Really, this personal commitment that he has planted, it’s created the cultivation of all of our employees over all of these years to simply want to give back and food banks is just a part of that. If you come to our headquarters community, John and I really want to personally invite you to come.

John: I might take you up on that, so be careful.

Laura: Please do.

John: I’m going to plan when we’re ready.

Laura: I need a shot with you by our equipment and our technology.

John: All right.

Laura: But please come. What you would see if you came to one of these historic home communities of John Deere is you would see proof in our culture. If you go and navigate around the American Red Cross Chapters, a Habitat for Humanity home build, United Way campaigns, and supporting our highest needs schools across all around the world. Food banks is something near and dear to me because that is what I lead and manage, but it crosses much more than food.

John: Got it. Talk about that in terms of 86,000 employees, and you cover so many countries around the world? It’s a global effort. How does it work? Where do you pick and choose what communities you serve in terms of hunger, and then what organizations do you work through in terms of food banks and things such as that?

Laura: Yeah, so this really all began in the early 1980s during the farm crisis.

John: Oh.

Laura: During that time and the devastation that we were seeing in our communities, my family personally experienced it, John Deere knew we must do something and had a responsibility to do something. That’s when we really started investing in the startup of a lot of the food banks that are our partners today. We really have a unique perspective on this from the company that we are, and we really see the value of food in two distinct ways. We personally see this food because we see the enormous work that goes into cultivating and growing the food that all of our farmers and ranchers around the world put into this. They have food that we all rely on. From this belief, we’ve grown that no food should go to waste. Then we’ve also seen through these major events and economic crises, through things like the Great Depression, the farm crisis, and more recently with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ve seen what people are personally experiencing in going hungry. We firmly believe that no one should be going hungry. What we’ve done is we’ve built these relationships over the years. Nancy Renkes has an amazing team here, River Bend Food Bank. It’s here in the Quad Cities. It’s a Feeding America Food Bank partner, and they save from waste the equivalent of millions of safe, healthy, and nutritious meals every year and that it directs that vital food to more than 200 Community Hunger Relief partners to ensure that no food goes to waste and that no one goes hungry. We have built these relationships and grown our partnerships all around the world because we know if we can come together as community, and we can share these same beliefs and put them into action, then we know all of our home communities will be healthier, more educated, more prosperous, more resilient, and ultimately more dignified and socially just.

John: Right.

Laura: Gosh, we have 37 food bank partners now all around the world.

John: I should have asked you earlier, Laura, but still, and for listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Laura Eberlin with us today. She’s the global Corporate Social Responsibility Lead at John Deere. To find Laura and her colleagues with all the important work that they’re doing to end hunger around the world, please go to www.deere.com, deaer.com. Laura, how bad is the hunger problem, first here in the United States, then on a global basis? Tee that up, I should have asked you that earlier. But I’m smart enough to know there’s a problem, but not wise enough to understand the order of magnitude of the problem.

Laura: Well, 838 million people or so are hungry in the world today. It varies by our community, whether it’s one in five or adults or one in five children, it really varies by each of our communities we call home. But just one person hungry is too many for us. It’s horrible to think about the lack of dignity that is a part of someone’s life to be a youth and go to the cupboard or not know where their next meal comes from. In all the different data sets throughout all of our home communities, we simply want to close the meal gap. Our really strong partners, like the Feed America Food Banks, like the Nancy Renkes here in the Quad Cities with River Bend Food Bank, and the enormously gifted Lisa Moon who leads the wonderful team at the Global Food Banking Network, we are investing in the capacity of food banks to save and distribute this food so that no one goes hungry in any of our home communities and kids can go and know where their next meal is going to come from.

John: Even in first world countries, such as the United States, because people think of hunger, and they think of emerging economies or areas that have been historically left behind or are more impoverished than the blessings that we have here in the United States, but even in a first world country like the United States, there’s a hunger problem. We still have a hunger problem here.

Laura: Absolutely. There’s kiddos going to school on free and reduced lunch passes, and that’s their only guaranteed meals in the school. You even see it with our natural disasters. We’ve had, I don’t know if you’ve watched the news lately, but we’ve had some tornado scares…

John: Right. Yeah. Last week…

Laura: …in the Midwest.

John: …didn’t you have some tornadoes in Moline last week or something like that?

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Laura: We did. We’ve been in our basements a lot, but people don’t always personalize it that when natural disasters strike, so when you have a flood, when you have electricity that goes out, the first thing you’re wanting to do is save your food in your refrigerator because the cost of that food is so much.

John: Right.

Laura: When all this stuff occurs, whether it’s man-made disaster or natural disaster, immediately people need food and water. It’s an ongoing epidemic. We’ve had a lot of these economic crises, and so we’re still living in this crisis mode, and we have ever since the USDA has calculated hunger. There’s been a disparity of hunger amongst marginalized people, marginalized communities, and it’s something that is a solvable problem. We truly can solve world hunger, if we all come together. Our farmers and ranchers actually produce enough food to feed the world. We just need to save it and rescue it and distribute it.

John: When you’re investing, Laura, you’re investing in the infrastructure of the food banks and also in food itself to be able to save food that would’ve gone to waste? Or how does the investment typically work, or what’s your macro thesis on the investment process at John Deere?

Laura: Yeah. Well, something that we’re really proud of is we’re always looking for ways to be the best partner.

John: Right.

Laura: How can we be the best partner and serve our food banks, they don’t serve us?

John: Right.

Laura: How can we serve them the best way? Something that we’ve been doing lately, and it’s an improvement that we’ve made that holds a great deal of promise. But today, almost all of our food bank grants are wholly unrestricted or for capacity building chosen by the food banks. This means that we give money to food banks with no strings attached.

John: Wow.

Laura: For them to be able to innovate and deal with the ever-changing landscape of hunger, they need and deserve funds that they can use however they see fit. We truly trust our food banks to deliver on this shared mission to save food and end hunger in a very humane and dignified way. We’re always looking for how we can be a better partner and empower them to do what they’re good at.

John: Got it. How does it work? Obviously, for non-farmers like me that have grown up in this great country and are proud of our great American brands, I’ve always been so proud whenever I see a John Deere truck, tractor or John Deere logo somewhere, how does your client base respond to your mission at John Deere? Are they involved with also donating or being involved with your ecosystem of ending hunger?

Laura: Yeah, so our farmers and ranchers are our heroes. We can’t shout enough what they mean to the world, and they’re the unsung hero. They’re doing all this hard work behind the scenes, and they don’t get the credit they deserve when we all go into the grocery store and select a product.

John: Right.

Laura: But they are the ones that if there’s a surplus of something, or if something doesn’t meet cosmetic regulations, or what have you, it’s our farmers donating this surplus or donating these items to our food bank partners. They’re being able to transform that, repackage that in individual size quantities. They’re always our hero in all of it. Even our dealership network does a ton around supporting our food banks. Between all elements of our stakeholder chain, our customers, our dealers, and our employees, we all are supporting this mission.

John: Everybody’s involved and everyone’s proud of this mission and goal?

Laura: Yes.

John: Talk a little bit about global. We talked about 80,000 plus employees around the world, how do you then choose your global outreach in terms of other countries that you work on ending hunger in?

Laura: Yeah, so it goes back to our home communities because we know it’s our employees that make our programs sustainable through their volunteerism and their efforts. When I look at the global expansion, just in the last two years, we’ve expanded our food bank capacity and reach into Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, multiple communities we call home, so Monterrey, TorrĂ©on, Ramos Saltillo all these places that we have employees. Once we then commit to our food bank partner in this unrestricted trust-based philanthropy approach, then we onboard our employees to bring it to life through their volunteerism and their engagement. They sit on boards, they’re packing the food, they’re sorting it, they’re delivering it, and they’re, quite frankly, talking and engaging with the guests who are receiving the food, and it’s taking away the stigma and the stereotypes around poverty of who these people are in the lines, and they’re like you and me.

John: Oh, my gosh. That’s literally incredible. How many colleagues do you work with in your division, in the CSR division, on ending hunger? Is it locally in Moline where this all comes out of, or is it widespread around the world and they all work up towards leadership under you in Moline?

Laura: We are a very small and mighty team of about five of us in the global CSR team.

John: Wow.

Laura: My boss is the President of our John Deere Foundation. Then, I am the only one leading our global food banking efforts.

John: Wow.

Laura: But I do have a colleague in India who’s supporting smallholder farmers, and our work intersects a little bit. You think about helping a smallholder farmer, which are resource constrained themselves, and sometimes, sadly, not even able to feed their own family. They’re producing the food. He’s helping increase their productivity and incomes to feed their own family and their village and beyond. Then I have a colleague in Brussels, Belgium working our no poverty support. Then I have a colleague in the US here focusing on our youth education support.

John: To give actionable things for our listeners and viewers, if people want to support your efforts or help end hunger wherever they are, where they’re listening, how can they be more involved? How can they help support your efforts, Laura? How can they help end this horrific 800 million person plus hunger problem around the world?

Laura: Yeah, the advocacy of just knowing what poverty looks like, they could have had a home fire, they could have lost their job, they could be laid off, they could have a disability. Just being educated on who is in the line and that it’s short-lived. Again, it could be all of us. Then understanding what great things that our Feeding America food banks do across the United States and the Global Food Banking Network and FIBA across the rest of the world. We all have these local partners that we can connect to and ask how we can help, whether it’s with our valuable time, whether it’s with our donation, whether it’s with our advocacy. But we all can learn more about what we can each do. We truly can end hunger. We truly can if we all come together.

John: I love it. In 2022, John Deere was named Honoree of the Civic 50, which recognizes the 50 most community minded companies in the nation each year. Thinking about all the tens of thousands of companies that are in the United States, to be one of 50, part of the Civic 50, that a heck of an honor. How did you guys receive that, Laura? What does that mean to you and your colleagues in the CSR division and at John Deere overall?

Laura: Of course, we never go and do these things for awards. But when we are honored to receive such an award, it truly is humbling and we are very proud. The Civic 50 recognizes the 50 most community minded companies, and they base that on annual US revenues of at least $1 billion. They have these different dimensions that they select them on relative to their social impact programs, whether it’s the investment of our resources, the integration across all of our business functions, the institutionalization of policy and systems, and then the impact measurement that we do with all of our grants is how do you then measure ROI and impact. To have been selected and honored in such a way, it truly is really amazing, and it just goes to show how special our people are. It’s all of our people in all of these communities, it’s not our little team of five. It’s not just our leadership team, but it sets the tone and the example. But it’s all these people in all these communities taking their loved ones, taking their kids, saying, how can we help, how can we make our community better, and we care about all of our neighbors. It’s an honor.

John: Really Sweet. Obviously, as you said earlier, Laura, with 800 plus million people on a worldwide basis going hungry, we’re far from closing the gap. But your efforts and your inspirational leadership and John Deere’s leadership on this issue is motivational and hopefully encourages others to be part of the solution here to close the gap on this problem. What’s next for you and your colleagues at John Deere on this commitment to ending hunger? What are you looking at in the months and years ahead?

Laura: Yeah, so we are always listening to our partners, asking how we can be better partners.

John: Right.

Laura: We’re looking at new and innovative ways to get food access to some of our most marginalized neighborhoods. We’re looking at hydroponic farming or urban vertical farms.

John: Wow.

Laura: We’re looking at what it’s going to take financially to close the meal gap. In some of our home communities it’s a bit of a moving target and Feeding America will have the Close the Meal Gap data coming out really soon, actually, in April this year. But we’re always looking for how we can help, what more can we do, how do you create access in communities that don’t have it, they don’t have the nutrition. They might have the local liquor store down the street with a bunch of preservative foods and Twinkies, etcetera. How do you just get that nutrition, it’s like medicine to all these people in all these neighborhoods and grow from in-school pantries to feeding whole families in the most humane way possible.

John: Right. Well, it’s a huge problem you’re tackling. It’s wonderful to understand that. I had no idea prior to doing some of the homework about our upcoming interview that how involved John Deere was involved with this very important mission that you’re on and so happy that you are leading it. For our listeners and viewers who want to find Laura and her colleagues at John Deere who are working on ending world hunger, please go to www.deare.com.

Laura, thank you for joining us today in the Impact Podcast. Thank you for having such an important mission-based work that you’re doing, servant leadership at John Deere, with all your colleagues. Thank you for making the impact that you’re making. You’re always welcome back on our show. Continued health, continued success, and we want you to end world hunger as soon as you can. Thank you again.

Laura: Thank you very much, John, and I’m still holding you up on that opportunity to come and visit us at Deer and Company World Headquarters.

John: I’m going to take you up on that one day…

Laura: Okay.

John: …you wait and see. Okay.

Laura: Sounds good.

John: All right.

Laura: Thank you so much.

John: This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital, from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closelooppartners.com.

John: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.