Making Sense of Food Systems with Jaimi St. John ’10
Faculty Spotlight: Drawing on her extensive experience leading innovation for large brands and start-ups, Jaimi St. John gives students in CIA’s master’s in Food Business program the tools they need to build sustainable food systems.
Jaimi St. John has been passionate about food her entire life, but it wasn’t until she studied at the Culinary Institute of America that she discovered the passion which would define her career: food systems. Since graduating from CIA (and then NYU), she’s developed and implemented sustainable food systems in a variety of roles—from marketing and innovation to sales and operations—at leading food companies like Chipotle, Panera, Everytable, Nextbite, and Cuisine Solutions, where she currently serves as vice president of sales leading the National Restaurant Chains channel.
As a professor in the CIA’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program, St. John shares the lessons she’s learned over the course of her career—preparing students not only to see the bigger picture of the food industry, but to help transform it.
The Other Side of Food
When St. John enrolled in CIA’s associate in Culinary Arts degree program, she had never considered what she describes as “the other side of food”: the complex global systems that deliver it to our shelves and tables. It wasn’t until she joined the student group Chefs Sustaining Agriculture, for which Lani Raider served as a faculty lead—that her eyes opened. “This student group, and Lani’s passion for our work was where I really learned about the other side of food—where it comes from, and why it matters in the food system,” she recalled. “I just fell in love with it.”
Shortly after graduating valedictorian from CIA’s associate degree program, Jaimi enrolled in the master’s in Food System program at New York University’s Food Systems program. As her passion for the subject deepened, she realized that the nonprofit route probably wasn’t the most impactful one she could take. “I started looking at corporate entities that had dollars to actually change supply and demand curves on a very large scale,” she explained. “That’s what brought me to the brands that I’ve worked for.”
“Every brand I’ve chosen has been centered around some angle of the food system or the food chain,” she added. “Chipotle, focused on sourcing standards, while Panera was tacking the ‘clean’ ingredient angle. Each brand I’ve worked for, and role I’ve taken had very intentional and rooted in these early learnings from CIA and NYU.”
The Best of Both Worlds
St. John’s Food Systems course is one of the first that students take in the master’s in Food Business program. Alongside fellow instructor Dr. Bruce German, she wants the course to inspire students to think big and to think critically. “For a lot of students coming into this program, they’re probably a bit more used to undergraduate work or even culinary school, where you have to memorize something and then spit it out on a test,” she said. “That’s not what we’re doing here. I want you to read, I want you to think, I want you to question, I want you to come to me and tell me that this article is total nonsense if you think it is—and I want you to back that up and tell me why.”
Her course exemplifies one of the Food Business program’s most important features: its faculty of working food industry professionals (like St. John) and veteran academics (like Dr. German). “That’s the power of the course: he’s a true scientist, an academic to the core of the word, and I’m more on the business, innovation, and strategy side,” she said. “Our forces combined, it’s like a two-for-one. The whole program is built way—the quality and the diversity of the educators is quite robust.”
By studying under teachers currently working in the food business, students gain a granular sense of the challenges and thrills they’ll face in their own work, as well as access to important industry connections. The most important aspect of the program, in her view, is the opportunity to immerse oneself in one’s studies. “It’s one thing to just do the assignments, do the reading, do the work. It’s another thing to live it, breathe it, embody it, think about it, and then take that and figure out how it’s going to change your life and the world around you.”
A Bright Future for the Food Business
For those considering CIA’s master’s in Food Business program, St. John encourages approaching it with robust curiosity. “You don’t have to know what you want to do before you join the program,” she stressed, “but once you start the program, it is geared to help you try to figure it out. Take the time to ask questions, talk to as many people as you can internally and externally, reflect with yourself—it’s a lot to sort through, so try to be intentional about it.”
While the industry certainly has its challenges ahead, St. John’s students give her hope for the future. “These students are the ones that are going to change things,” she concluded. “There are such inspiring ideas that come out of the students within this program. I want to wrap my arms around all of them, encourage and support as much as possible, and hopefully I’ll see them in the news someday for truly breaking ground and positively impacting our shared food system.”