SAN LUIS OBISPO — A team of four Cal Poly agricultural business seniors won first place in the National Grocers Association 2021 Student Case Study Competition for their presentation on how grocers can combat the major economic issues caused by COVID-19 by staying competitive through their “local supply chains” against low-price operators.

The Cal Poly team included students Katherine “Scottie” Lester, Joshua Smith, Annika Bertelsen, and Amber Eckert. Agribusiness Associate Professor Ricky Volpe advised the team.

The National Grocers Association (NGA) hosts the annual competition, which moved to a virtual platform this year. Each year, the NGA Foundation selects an independent retailer and a pressing industry issue to use as a subject for the competition. The competing schools are all members of the Food Industry University Coalition, which has programs that relate directly to the food retail sector. After months of research, student teams present their findings to a panel of judges, the independent retailer featured as the subject of the competition, and NGA Show attendees.

Five schools, including Cal Poly, competed on Mar. 10, delivering presentations demonstrating how retailers with strong local supply chains were better equipped than their competitors in dealing with issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Cal Poly team prepared throughout winter quarter. Advisor Volpe hosted an internal competition at which five student teams enrolled in the senior project course Applied Business Problems prepared their solutions. The winning team advanced to represent Cal Poly at the NGA competition.

“The competition requires the combination of speaking ability, graphic presentation, data analysis and industry outreach,” Volpe said. “I believe our team began the competition with some aptitude for each of these but grew significantly in all four dimensions as the quarter progressed. I also believe they learned much about collaboration and project management.”

Bertelsen, an agricultural business senior, said she learned a lot about the grocery industry by participating in the competition. “While everyone can come up with ideas on how the grocery industry could better serve consumers, it takes research and proof of concept to take these ideas to the next level,” she said. “My team went through trial and error of finding different solutions and then proving them to be infeasible until we landed on our unique solution of a subscription-based grocery box highlighting local items.”

The student teams offered solutions to real-world issues facing the grocery industry, preparing them for the challenges they will face working in the industry upon graduation.

“Despite the necessary move of the competition from an in-person venue to a virtual one, these students generated much excitement with their forward-thinking ideas for real-world scenarios,” said NGA Foundation Director Maggie White. “We congratulate the Cal Poly team along with the other worthy contenders. Their performance is a testament to the great leadership potential coming up in our industry.”

The win was a team effort. “Any success starts with a solid team,” said team member Lester, who will work at Altman Plants in San Diego County upon graduation in June. “Individually and as a group, my team members are motivated hard workers, and because of those factors, we were able to secure a victory for Cal Poly.”


Cal Poly is a nationally ranked, comprehensive polytechnic university. The university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences,, is comprised of expert faculty members who take pride in their ability to transform academically motivated students into innovative professionals ready to solve the complex challenges associated with feeding the world in sustainable ways. Students have access to state-of-the-art laboratories, including ranch land, orchards, vineyards and forests, all of which provide the basis for Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing methodology. It is the fifth-largest college of agriculture in the country, with 4,000 undergraduate students.


NGA is the national trade association representing the retail and wholesale grocers that comprise the independent sector of the food distribution industry. The independent grocery sector is accountable for close to 1% of the nation’s overall economy and is responsible for generating $131 billion in sales, 944,000 jobs, $30 billion in wages and $27 billion in taxes. NGA members include retail and wholesale grocers, state grocers’ associations, as well as manufacturers and service suppliers. For more information about NGA, visit