Growing up, Monalisa Prasad was accustomed to the pristine beaches of the Andamans Islands—a group of islands in the Indian Ocean where she was raised.
But as she grew, she saw something change in the islands. She watched rapid infrastructure development take its toll, and her once-beautiful home become littered with polluted beaches and destroyed habitats.
“The first time I went to India after being in England for a while, I remember going back to the islands, and there were cars honking on the street, something I’ve never heard of in the islands,” she said. “It was just like an island life where there’s not many cars, there’s not much pollution, everybody is just living their life very freely.”
The changes she noticed sparked a passion in her—a desire to invoke environmental change.
“Back then, I could tell, it was such an unsustainable approach to conducting, even, tourism business. Because it just instinctively felt wrong to me,” Prasad said. “Seeing it deteriorate in front of you was really heartbreaking, but also, I remember thinking to myself, someone needs to do something and why can’t it be me?”
Now, as the national director of sustainability for Chartwells Higher Ed, Prasad uses her role to make eco-friendlier impacts, both big and small.
A path to foodservice sustainability
Prasad became self-reliant at an early age and spent most of her early education in boarding school.
“Growing up in a boarding school, what happens is it makes you question everything and seek clarity to make those informed decisions,” she said.
She would visit home every summer and enjoy time with her parents and with nature, continuing to fuel her passion for sustainability.
She decided to study tourism management because she wanted help create a more sustainable approach to hospitality. Later, she took an internship with Compass Group in the U.K., where she continued to learn the ins and outs of the business.
She answered a call for volunteers for an event led by food waste expert Tristram Stuart, the goal of which was to provide 5,000 free meals using food that would have otherwise gone to waste.
“So that’s when I really understood the food system and the nexus between energy, climate and water, and how everything is wasted if you just waste food alone,” Prasad said.
The experience stuck with her—not just because of the learnings she took away from it, but because of her encounters with Stuart, who recognized Prasad’s passion and noted that she would make a difference someday.
“Like years later, I met him actually in 2019 in New York at a Stop Food Waste Day event, and he recognized me and was like, ‘Well, I told you that you’d do something,’” she said.
From there, she earned an MBA in supply chain and operations management from the University of Exeter in England. In 2013, she moved to the U.S. to get her third masters degree at Columbia University, this time in sustainability management.
For Prasad, the learning never stops.
“Right now, I’m doing a few certificate courses as well, because there’s so much to learn in the space that we’re in,” she said. “And there’s new certifications, there’s new ways of reporting, things like that. So, I’m just constantly learning.”
Sustainability always top of mind
Prasad has stayed with Compass Group throughout her career and began working with Chartwells in 2014, spending the first couple years getting to know the difference between U.S. and U.K. operations. She held a variety of positions, including roles as assistant director of mission and director of catering at the account level.
This time was a learning experience for Prasad, who sometimes would even act as a sous-chef.
“So, it taught me a lot, from plating dinners as to the financial components of things, but my heart really was always in sustainability management,” she said.
When a university where she worked was serving food in Styrofoam containers, she quickly jumped to action, convincing management to move toward reusable or compostable containers.
Then, when Chartwells Higher Ed won the account at New York University in 2019, Prasad was its candidate for director of sustainability there.
In that role, Prasad helped the account establish its sustainable dining program. In addition, she assisted in NYU’s signing of the Cool Food Pledge, a commitment to help the university cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food it serves.
Then, in 2021, she got a call from Chartwells about an opportunity the company thought would be a good fit for her—national director of sustainability for Chartwells Higher Education. She interviewed and landed the job.
Using her role to make an impact
Prasad seeks to make a big impact from a multitude of smaller changes, such as turning lights off when she leaves a room and making sure faucets aren’t running.
“There was one associate who came up to me and said, ‘Why do you do this every single time?’ I said, ‘Because energy and water are very precious resources that we need to save, especially water,’” she said. “So that’s such a small impact, but it goes a long way.”
Prasad suggested the associate start doing it themselves and see the impact it can have, especially in influencing the children around them. A couple months down the line, the associate noted that making such a simple change had helped her teach her kids about the importance of saving resources.
In her current role, Prasad can take these small impacts to a larger scale. For instance, she worked on partnering with researcher How Good to put carbon labels on menus at the campuses Chartwells serves.
“Empowering the thousands and thousands of people who we’re serving on campuses across the nation to make those informed choices, I think is that larger impact that I’m talking about,” she said.
Establishing the climate-labeling partnership was one of her favorite moments of her career so far, she said. Climate labeling had been in the back of her mind since her time at NYU and seeing it come to fruition was a big moment. She said positive feedback on the initiative continues to motivate her.
“Seeing Gen Z, the students who really wanted and care about these things, seeing them react to it was really special,” she said.
Looking forward, Prasad has both long-term and short-term goals in mind. In the short term, she is working on food waste reduction strategies and in the long term, Prasad is working on reaching Chartwells’ net-zero emissions commitment.
Prasad says she doesn’t see obstacles in her future, but does note that one challenge in foodservice is a misconception that it’s a male-oriented industry.
More and more women are getting involved in foodservice, she says, adding that, in her organization, she sees many women leaders who excel at their jobs.
She noted that one way to fight back against these misconceptions is by standing confident in your knowledge and taking gender out of the equation.
“When I come to say talk about sustainability, I know what I'm talking about. I don't look at it as a male or female that I'm talking to—I’m talking to this person,” she said.
She also encourages anybody interested in foodservice or sustainability, no matter their background, to take that first step and get involved: “I would say, go get it, you know, and it may sound very cliche and that's because everybody says it, but no solution is straightforward… And if it is at that point where that change needs to be felt by companies where, you know, embracing more women in in the space or queer or non-binary or whatever the case may be, go for it and just learn to embrace that diversity in every way.”