view current print edition




John Vena’s Emily Kohlhas has packed a lot of experiences into her 29 years

Emily Kohlhas’ first exposure to the produce industry was in 2009 when she worked at Whole Foods Market for a short stint after finishing college. Today she serves as sales and marketing coordinator for John Vena Inc., located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.

“Technically, I was in customer service at Whole Foods, but I was most interested in the food, especially farmstead cheeses and fresh produce,” said Kohlhas. “I took advantage of the opportunity to learn from my colleagues about the farms, suppliers and products we worked with. I’m thankful to have been exposed to a community and company that valued sustainability, for both its social and environmental benefits, as well as economic ones. It’s been a fundamental part of my personal value system ever since.

A little later in her young career — she’s 29 years old — she worked for a regional planning organization where she attended several farmers markets weekly.

“I began to cultivate relationships with the farmers, and I spent all of my free time visiting their farms, toying around with my rooftop container garden or preserving the harvest in my kitchen,” she explained. “After several years, I decided it was time to align my interests with my career, so I transitioned into the food and farming space.”

Hiking--Backpacking-in-Utah-croppedEmily Kohlhas hiking and backpacking in Utah.She became involved with a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia working to support a healthy local food system. She also became involved with a foundation whose signature program helped public and charter schools develop from-scratch school lunch programs, all while she continued to work at farmers markets. She eventually decided to pursue an apprenticeship on a biodynamic farm in California.

“During that time I became increasingly interested in the structure of food systems, particularly alternative food systems,” said Kohlhas. “I often contemplated how people were connected, or disconnected, to their food. For me it was personal; I wanted to know where the food I was eating came from.”

She eventually realized that many of the alternative food systems she had been exposed to were stuck at cottage capacity, unable to scale up to a size where they were economically sustainable.

“I wanted to know about conventional food production and distribution,” she noted. “While working on a study to identify barriers and opportunities for local food movement through terminal markets, I was introduced to John Vena. He was looking for someone to join the team to focus on marketing efforts, and I was looking for an opportunity to see firsthand how the conventional food distribution system operates. That was a few years ago, and I’m very happy here still today.”

Kohlhas graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology. Her coursework focused on biology, animal behavior and international studies. In 2008 she studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Today she also serves on the board of directors of the South Philly Food Co-op, a start-up cooperative grocery store in South Philadelphia.

“We announced a new location a few months ago and are very busy with construction, design and fundraising,” she said. “We expect to open our doors before the end of the year. It takes a good deal of balance to fit what is essentially an unpaid and, at times, highly stressful, part-time job into my schedule. But being involved in community-based, economic empowerment initiatives is very important to me. Equally important is ensuring that my neighborhood has access to real foods free from harmful chemicals, so I make time and mental space to meaningfully contribute.”

Riding-while-living-on-a-ranch-in-MexicoEmily Kohlhas riding when living on a ranch in Mexico.

In addition to her love and devotion to her three-legged mutt, Sebastian, Kohlhas likes to cook for friends and family. She hosts a running series of themed dinner parties where she explores the culinary heritage of particular regions.

“For instance, I hosted a group of friends for a night of Syrian food and drink during the recent immigration ban, and this past New Year’s I prepared a Russian zakuski, a celebratory spread of snacks and salads paired with flavored vodkas,” she said. “I’m also interested in fermenting and preserving, and can be found packing a batch of kimchi or sauerkraut into a crock at least a few times a year.”

She has practiced yoga for over six years, and has been working to establish a vipassana-based meditation practice. She tries to practice every day, if only for a few moments in her busy schedule.

“Yoga has been a good friend to me during stressful or difficult times,” she pointed out. “It’s very easy to barrel through life ping-ponging from one thing to the next, but I’ve found that mindful movement like yoga can be a wonderful way to check back into one’s own life. It’s also a great way to develop physical strength.”

She also enjoys running and hiking, and loves spending time on the trails of Philadelphia’s excellent urban park system.

“I ran my first 10-miler last fall, and plan on doing a Tough Mudder this spring,” she said.

Reading and crossword puzzles are also on her list of favorite things to do, as is traveling. She’s been to Greece and in the Pacific Northwest, but hopes to do some solo traveling to Kenya and Vietnam in the future.

“I also spend time with my family, eating at ethnic hole-in-the-wall establishments, dancing to upbeat tropical house music, learning about fine wines, listening to podcasts, thinking about being on a horse — or a boat, taking photos or spending too much time posting to Instagram at @EmilyKensley; my only social media vice,” Kohlhas riddled.

Peering into the looking glass at the future of the produce industry, she believes it will be increasingly dominated by two models. One is grower, retail and foodservice consolidation and direct purchasing on a global scale. The other is small-scale agriculture and alternative regional food systems.

“I believe companies outside those sectors will be left with an increasingly limited market share to divide among themselves, and competition will continue to intensify,” she predicts. “Those that survive will use creativity and ingenuity to engineer value and design services in an industry of commodities.

“No matter how the supply chain ends up articulating itself, I see a future in which sustainability and traceability become the norm,” Kohlhas continued. “Consumers will become increasingly curious about where and how their food is grown. Distinct from the precautions, procedures and data systems associated with food safety, consumers will prefer products free from the reckless use of chemicals and questionable labor practices. And they’ll want retailers who they can trust to carry products that are healthy, pure and regenerative socially and environmentally.”