Stories / Awards, Impact

Meet JBF Leadership Award Winner Tensie Whelan

Jamie Feldmar

Jamie Feldmar

October 11, 2012


Tensie Whelan

Our 2012 James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards are less than one week away! Leading up to the big event, we're introducing you to each of the five visionaries being honored for their outstanding contributions to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. We've already filled you in on Dr. Kathleen Merrigan and Dr. Jason Clay—and today, we'd like you to meet:

Tensie Whelan
President, Rainforest Alliance

As president of Rainforest Alliance, Tensie Whelan wears many hats: she works closely with the heads of some of the world’s biggest food companies to encourage them to shift to more sustainable, eco-friendly business practices; and she’s just as close with a global network of farmers and ranchers, ensuring that they meet the Alliance’s strict environmental and social standards. It’s this multifaceted approach to creating a sustainable business model that’s helped the Rainforest Alliance develop one of the most trusted labels on the planet.

“She thinks globally, and she takes her business personally. It’s not a job,” says 2011 JBF Leadership Award honoree Craig Watson, former vice president of Agricultural Sustainability for SYSCO Corporation, who’s known Whelan for six years through the environmental nonprofit the Sustainable Food Lab. “She’s very, very concerned about changing our environment, about biodiversity, and about social issues.”

Watson admires what he describes as Whelan’s quiet yet tremendous confidence. “With big, globally sourced commodities like coffee, bananas, or palm oil, it’s not only about growing them according to certain standards, but it’s also about attaining market access for these things. To get them to do that work, you have to be prepared to get down and in the dirt. And Tensie will do just that,” he says.  

When Whelan talks about her work, she emphasizes the connectivity of everyone in the food system. “We’re beginning to see a shift of people reconnecting with their food and understanding the labor and love and impact that go into creating their food,” she says. Whelan is pleased by the growing interest in sustainability from all angles: producers, consumers, and businesses. “Our work shows that a holistic approach to farming, one that protects the environment and provides good conditions to producers, is also the most financially viable way forward,” she says. “We’re trying to mainstream that knowledge so conventional practices will become the exception rather than the rule. We want sustainable agriculture to become conventional agriculture.”

She cites a sea change in recent years from big businesses that are looking to invest in sustainable practices as a core pillar rather than a marketing technique. “In the past five years we’ve started to see companies like Unilever, Kraft, and Mars really shift how they’re thinking about this as something that will help them stay in business for the next 20 years. It’s very encouraging to us, and it makes our jobs slightly easier,” she says.

It helps that the Alliance seal carries so much integrity. “When I see the Rainforest Alliance label on a national brand, it tells me two things: that RA has earned the confidence of a national brand, and that the brand believes RA is a trustworthy independent system that they’re proud to be associated with,” says Watson. “So much of that credibility has to do with Tensie’s beliefs and approach.” She is, he adds, “not only what I call one of my ‘sustainable friends’; she’s also a good human.” – Jamie Feldmar

About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards

The 2012 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. This year’s honorees were chosen by an advisory board comprised of a dozen experts from diverse areas of expertise, as well as last year’s Leadership Award recipients. Now in its second year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners will be honored at a dinner ceremony that will take place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 17 in New York City. For more information, visit