Board Member Feature: Learn how Mary Jane Melendez’s passion for giving shaped her career in sustainability and social impact.
“My favorite cereal is Lucky Charms,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer for General Mills and president of the General Mills Foundation and Saint & Minnesota Foundation board member. “I can't help but smile every time I see all those little marshmallows in my cereal bowls.”
The Saint Paul native’s love for cereal started early, just like her affinity for giving. Growing up in Frogtown, Mary Jane’s desire to help others began when her parents opened their home to disabled adults.
“My parents always taught their children that no matter how much you have or don't have, you can always do something for others,” she said. “There were constant reminders of the things that you can do to help others have a better quality of life.”
Her parents’ influence along with her Mexican heritage would help shape Mary Jane’s life values and eventually, her career path.
“I knew right away when I started school that I wanted to do something that would contribute to the greater good and serve other people,” Mary Jane said. “My Mexican heritage and way of growing up involved taking care of others and that played into the belief that we can do more for others. It taught me the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. My upbringing inspired me to choose a career where I can also put other people first. It taught me the importance of taking thoughtful but disciplined risks, and helped me to see the viewpoints of underrepresented communities, because voices that are not often heard can have the greatest contribution.”
Mary Jane’s willingness to give and serve others would lead her to the University of St. Thomas, where she worked full-time while maintaining a full course load, and eventually General Mills, where she has combined her passion for giving with her love for the environment.
“What's been very rewarding is having a career that allows me to positively impact people and the planet, and see that on a daily basis,” Mary Jane said. “Whether it's the way we’re working to support our hometown communities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul or making sure we have the key ingredients for our products, good can come in different ways."
Building a Sustainable Community
Through her leadership with General Mills, the organization has made it a priority to sustainably build an environmentally and socially equitable community by looking at the food chain from farm to fork.
In 2019, General Mills made a commitment to regenerative agriculture, and has examined new ways to source key ingredients.
“General Mills has a very ambitious goal to be a force for good,” Mary Jane said. “We are a company that depends on the health and well-being of Mother Nature to provide inputs like oats so we can make products like Cheerios and Nature Valley granola bars.”
“The ability for the soil to return to health and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, increase biodiversity and improve water quality is important to us building a more resilient and regenerative food supply to feed a growing global population.”
“ My upbringing inspired me to choose a career where I can put other people first. What's been very rewarding is being able to have a career that allows me to positively impact people and the planet, and see that on a daily basis”
Mary Jane Melendez
Addressing Food Security
The value in building sustainable food supplies became even more evident with COVID-19 and the tragic murder of George Floyd, when our communities and state experienced food insecurity.
“With many food service outlets such as hotels and restaurants being closed, we moved those products intended for those outlets to donations,” said Mary Jane. “We actually manufactured $5 million worth of food donations to Feeding America and its member food banks, including bowls of cereal, frozen waffles, breakfast items and more to feed the community, especially those children who no longer had access to school meals because they were at home.”
In addition, General Mills also made contributions to local and international food bank organizations and feeding agencies, and helped support pop-up mobile pantries where youth could pick up breakfast items.
Investing in Community
The Foundation’s ability to step in during times of community need is one of the things that drew Mary Jane to our board. Growing up in Saint Paul, she experienced firsthand how the Foundation’s support makes an impact.
“The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation has supported so many organizations I was able to take part in, whether it was educational classes at Wilder or programs at the YMCA,” Mary Jane said. “I’ve always honored and respected the investments the Foundation has made, because I felt like you were making an investment in me. So it was very personal for me to get involved in an organization where I not only saw the benefits, but personally experienced the benefits of the work.”
In addition to our investment in community-led solutions, Mary Jane also appreciates the Foundation’s work around narrative change, which has inspired some of her team's work.
“One of the things that we've done at General Mills for the past few years is create a space to have Courageous Conversations,” Mary Jane said. “We've been having conversations around racial equity, diversity and the different challenges that humanity is facing and at a place where you wouldn't normally expect it, a corporate setting. Having these very raw, emotional and difficult discussions has actually been so eye-opening, thought-provoking and engaging in so many ways. It's really helped us to learn and understand again where we can be better as a company.”
Much like herself, Mary Jane believes the Foundation has nourished the community by finding ways to amplify the impact of the people who live in it.
“I think the culture you foster of inclusion, both internally and in our community, is something that a lot of others could learn from,” Mary Jane said. “I think that ensuring diversity of input and perspectives as well as using your voice and advocacy for equity is something that the Foundation does remarkably well. As a respected philanthropic leader in the community your voice matters and people pay attention when you talk.”