Kroger’s Sunny Parr says ‘our food system needs breaking’

Sunny Reelhorn Parr acknowledges that her career path looks a bit nontraditional on paper. After all, her background includes everything from a semester of law school to owning a dance studio to working in pension investment. But when she describes the journey, the dots all connect, forming a line that leads to her current role as head of philanthropy and executive director of the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation.

Sunny Parr by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers
Sunny Parr of the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2022.)

For one thing, she’s always wanted to create systems change. At Kroger, she’s working to accomplish that – because, as she puts it, “Our food system needs breaking.”

“She plays a critical role in Kroger’s impact philanthropy journey in Cincinnati and beyond,” said Keith Dailey, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs and chief impact officer, describing Parr as “dynamic, compassionate and strategic.” 

“Sunny is successful because she combines the passion and ability to drive outsized impact with the heart of a servant leader,” Dailey said.

Meandering journey

Born in South Korea, Parr was adopted and moved to Columbus at age 5. She only spoke Korean, so everyone thought it would take a year for her to learn English well enough to go to school. A determined Parr was ready in three months.

Her overachieving continued through high school, scoring a full scholarship to Ohio State University, where she majored in operations and finance. She applied to law school. It wasn’t so much about wanting to practice law; rather, she was interested in policy as a means to make a difference.

That’s how she wound up in Northern Kentucky, attending Salmon P. Chase College of Law – but only for a semester. While there, the former competitive dancer and dance instructor took an adult dance class. 

Her teacher noticed her experience and recommended her to a family whose dance studio needed a new artistic director. Parr’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in: She said she’d only do it if she could be the owner. 

That’s how she came to spend the next 10 years running her own dance studio.

During that decade, she also earned her master’s in public administration and met Nathan, a high school teacher who’s now her husband of 15 years. After school, he’d come help her at the studio. It was hard work, for both of them, and the evenings and weekends required didn’t fit with the family life the couple wanted.

Joining the Kroger team

While reevaluating, she took on contract work in pension investment at Kroger. After selling her studio, she went to work at Kroger full time and “fell in love with” the team.

But after she had her son, Teegan (now 8), she realized she wanted to go into nonprofit work, specifically fundraising. 

“I wanted to do work that actually leaves a legacy,” she said. “That’s a really big word, but I think of legacy for the people around me or who have interacted with me …  that felt more present when I thought about a child, my child.

“He’s my everything,” the Fort Thomas resident added. “My favorite job is being a mom. The fact that he wakes up and can see my work, … and that work being meaningful and purposeful to me, was really the main reason I thought this was the path I wanted to take.”

Sunny Parr by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers
Sunny Parr (Photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2022.)

Meaningful work

Parr started her philanthropic career in donor development at Shriners Hospitals for Children. Having had surgeries for cleft lip and palate as a young child, she felt a personal connection to the organization’s mission. (There’s also a connection to her work with hunger at Kroger: “My cleft lip and palate is not actually genetic; it’s because my biological mother was malnourished and couldn’t sustain herself while pregnant,” she said.)  

After raising $5 million in her first year at Shriners, she learned about a brand-new foundation role at Kroger. Excited about the chance to go “home” to work with the people she loved while continuing in philanthropy, she threw her hat in the ring – and got the job.

“The work is so incredible,” she said. “I could not have imagined five years ago what this would be.” 

When she rejoined the company in 2017, she was in charge of The Kroger Co. Foundation, a traditional corporate, private foundation. Shortly thereafter, Parr helped conceive Kroger’s new public charity, The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation, which launched in 2018.

“We all said ‘This is what our company is about,’” she said. “It’s not a campaign; it’s not going to go away in three years. More like ‘This is what our company stands for when it comes to people and planet.’”

What’s in a name

The name Zero Hunger | Zero Waste expressed a duality of issues. 

“There is enough food production, but people are hungry. That’s the absurdity,” she said. 

To address it, she sees the need to do things differently.

“There’s such a power dynamic in philanthropy,” she said. “It comes from that position of privilege.” 

But that’s not how she positions herself.

“This is not ‘I’m Kroger, I have all the power and the money,’” she said. “Power needs to be set in the middle of the table so there’s a truly trust-based conversation.”

She believes in relying on the expertise of the nonprofits that are doing the work.

“I never approach a conversation like I know everything; actually I know nothing,” she said. “They’re serving clients every day and know their needs. I’m asking, ‘What is it that you know you should be doing, but you don’t have the capacity and resources?’

“The philosophy I bring to my work is that philanthropy can uniquely provide the risk capital for services and programs to help lift up our communities that general capital is not typically interested in funding,” she said. “We must be centered in our mission and be open to innovation as we seek to help spark the change we seek in the world.”

“Partnership” is a favorite word, as Parr believes it’s key to making a difference. Inherently an introvert, she loves to ask questions, listen to different perspectives and fuse them to show how change can be accomplished. 

A change-maker

People often call Parr a change-maker. Dora Anim, chief operating officer at Greater Cincinnati Foundation, described Parr using a similar word: trailblazer.

“She’s breaking new ground,” Anim said. “Collectively, Kroger has such a huge footprint that if she can influence that … (she can) create systemic change. I think she understands that impact really needs to happen on a global scale.” 

Even with that huge footprint, she remains approachable, said Daniel Tonozzi, development director at La Soupe. 

“Sunny Parr is leading a very large foundation on a national platform, but is still very involved and approachable locally,” he said. “She really gets the whole macro issue,” said Jonathan Adee, executive director of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful. “It’s not so much helping out individual organizations as it is about effecting larger change through those organizations.

“She has a lot of compassion, a lot of empathy for the system challenges that nonprofit organizations face,” he added. “Working through Kroger, she’s able to maneuver through the systems change arena in ways the smaller nonprofits can’t, and there’s a lot of benefit for us.”

Breaking the system

One of the initiatives Parr is most passionate about is working with partners outside the nonprofit world. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste’s Innovation Fund supports entrepreneurs working to help food security and end food waste.

“We are looking for founders with lived experience who are disrupting – I often use breaking in a positive way – because our food system needs breaking,” Parr said. 

She’s excited about the potential of technology to upcycle products that might otherwise become waste, end up in the landfill and create greenhouse gasses. Locally, three different nonprofits – La Soupe, Last Mile Food Rescue and Freestore Foodbank – use three different technologies to do so.

Another initiative she’s excited about is the private foundation’s relatively new Racial Equity Fund, supporting organizations working toward more equitable communities.

In total, Kroger donated $343 million in food and funds in 2021, and the company works to support thousands of nonprofit organizations nationwide, Parr said.

“It feels like a lot, and that’s why it’s important to contemplate the decisions,” she said.

Although she’s serious about her work, she’s also protective of her personal time, whether she’s going for a walk, working out, spending family time outdoors or taking Teegan to and from second grade. A former Cincinnati Ben-Gals cheerleader, she still helps judge finals each year.

“If it’s carved out for me, it’s carved out for me and no one can budge it,” she said.

It’s an admirable balance, considering how much her role – and the work – has grown.

“The work has grown because there is a lot of vision, there is a lot of strategy and there’s a lot of meaningful work to be done,” she said. “It’s hard, and it’s good, and it’s inspiring.”

“This work is always unfinished,” she added. “Why I do this work every day is because I want this thing to blow up in a really wonderful way.” 

About the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation

Since 2018, the foundation has directed more than $30 million to organizations working to create communities free of hunger and waste. They support nonprofits, innovators and community-based organizations that help:

  • Meet critical transportation needs for food banks and partner agencies.
  • Operate mobile pantry programs to improve food access in underserved communities.
  • Increase access to, and enrollment in, SNAP benefits.
  • Provide breakfast after the bell for students at school.
  • Serve homeless men and women who want to gain skills, stabilize their lives and find permanent housing.
  • Improve nutrition education and access to healthier foods.

The Future of Food @ SXSW 2022 sponsored by the Kroger Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation

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