SAN LOUIS OBISPO – A team of four Cal Poly agribusiness students won first place in the National Grocery Manufacturers Association’s 2021 competition for a presentation on how food producers can combat the major economic challenges resulting from COVID-19 by remaining competitive with low-cost suppliers through their local supply chains.

Cal Poly’s team included students Kathryn Scottie Lester, Joshua Smith, Annika Bertelsen and Amber Eckert. Ricky Volpe, assistant professor of agribusiness, advised the team.

The National Grocers Association (NGA) holds an annual contest, which this year moved to a virtual platform. Each year, the NGA Foundation selects an independent retailer and a topic relevant to the industry as the theme for the competition. All participating schools are members of the Food Industry University Coalition, which offers programs directly related to the food distribution industry. After months of research, student teams present their findings to a panel of judges, an independent retailer representing the theme of the competition and visitors to the NGA Show.

Five schools, including Cal Poly, participated in the 10th. March with presentations showing that retailers with strong local supply chains can better meet the challenges of the COWID 19 pandemic than their competitors.

The Cal Poly team has been preparing all winter. Councilmember Volpe organized an internal competition in which five teams of students enrolled in the Applied Business Challenges senior project course proposed their solutions. The winning team represented Cal Poly at the NGA competition.

Being competitive requires a combination of language skills, graphics, data analysis and industry collaboration, Volpe said. I think our team started the league with a few skills in each, but improved significantly in all four dimensions over the course of the quarter. I also think they learned a lot about collaboration and project management.

Bertelsen, farm manager, said she learned a lot about the food industry by participating in the contest. Anyone can think of ways the food industry can better serve consumers, but it takes research and proof of concept to take those ideas to the next level, she said. Through trial and error, my team tried different solutions, which then proved impossible, until we found our unique solution, which is a subscription food box with an emphasis on local produce.

Teams of students came up with solutions to real-life problems in the food industry, preparing them for the challenges they will face in the food industry after graduation.

Although the competition had to move from a personal space to a virtual one, the students created a lot of excitement with their visionary ideas for real-world scenarios, said Maggie White, director of the NGA Foundation. Congratulations to the Cal Poly team and also to the other deserving opponents. Their work shows the great leadership potential of our industry.

This victory is the result of a team effort. All success starts with a cohesive team, said team member Lester, who will be working at Altman Works in San Diego County after graduation in June. Individually and as a group my team is motivated, works hard, and because of these factors we were able to get Cal Poly a win.

About the site

Cal Poly is a comprehensive statewide polytechnic university. The College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences at University is comprised of experienced faculty who take pride in their ability to train scientifically motivated students to become innovative professionals ready to meet the complex challenges of feeding the world in a sustainable manner. Students have access to state-of-the-art laboratories, including ranches, orchards, vineyards and forests, which form the basis of Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing methodology. It is the fifth largest agricultural school in the country, with 4,000 students.

About the site

The NGA is a national trade association representing the retail and wholesale food trade, including the independent food distribution sector. The independent food sector represents nearly 1% of the national economy, generating $131 billion in sales, 944,000 jobs, $30 billion in wages and $27 billion in taxes. NGA members include food retailers and wholesalers, national associations of food producers, and manufacturers and service providers. For more information about the NGA, please visit


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