From passion to action: AFA alumnus paving the way for underrepresented students in food and agriculture

Nick Tarleton — Chicago native and McDonald’s Corporation employee — mentors students, helping them find their place in a food industry career

by Becca Frazier, Agriculture Future of America

Passion drives many to do what they love, and that is certainly true for Agriculture Future of America (AFA) alumnus Nick Tarleton. Tarleton’s passion for food and agriculture began at the age of 7 when he lost his maternal grandmother to diabetes, which sparked aspirations to carve out his place in the food industry through a career in food and nutrition.

Now living out his dream to work in the food industry, Tarleton’s passion has shifted to helping high school students in Chicago and college students across the nation — especially those who are underrepresented — find their own careers in food and agriculture. His dedication and servant-leader mindset landed him the 2022 AFA Bridge Builder Award, which recognizes Tarleton’s continued engagement with AFA and service to his career, community and the food and agriculture industry as a whole.

“Representation is very important to me,” says Tarleton. “When I was at the University of Illinois, there was no one that looked like me in the classroom. It wasn’t until I came to AFA Leaders Conference that I was embraced by people that didn’t look like me, and I found people that valued me for just being me. I’m really grateful for AFA for investing in me, being a bridge for me and allowing me the opportunity to be a bridge for more AFA students.”

As a proud graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tarleton was the first Black male to receive a Bachelor of Science in food science and human nutrition since the school was founded in 1868. Having been the first African American to graduate from the university with this degree, Tarleton recognizes the support and guidance provided to him through AFA. He repays that generosity to others through living out the mission of AFA — to build bridges for young leaders to foster engagement and innovation in food and agriculture — through giving back in time and resources to build a stronger, more vibrant food industry.

Through various activities — including mentoring students studying food science and nutrition, and serving as a tour group host and speaker at AFA Food Institute each year — Tarleton remains an advocate and encourager for students looking to find their place in the food industry.

“Nick is very intentional about creating pathways for underrepresented students — specifically those interested in the food industry — to see careers in the food industry as a possibility,” says Joseph Ballard II, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Iowa State University and Tarleton’s former academic advisor. “He inspires people by his authenticity and being genuine, real, direct and honest — but also by having a strong heart to pay it forward and passion to help others.”

Growing up in Chicago, Tarleton had a dream to one day work for McDonald’s Corporation at their Chicago headquarters. That dream is now reality, as Tarleton serves as a supervisor in McDonald’s U.S. Supply Chain team analyzing behind-the-counter quality complaints and managing data from 14,000 U.S. restaurants.

While Tarleton achieved his goal of working for an organization prioritizing the health and safety of food, his work hasn’t stopped there. As a mentee of multiple students journeying through rigorous food science programs, Tarleton has a desire to help them accomplish their dreams, just as he received help accomplishing his.

“Nick invests time to work with students and expose them to the opportunities available so that he can impact the next generation of leaders,” says Kelsey House, AFA senior project manager. “Nick is a bridge builder because he’s a proven advocate for his industry and for his community.”

Beyond the time invested in paving the way for students to find careers in the food industry, Tarleton invests time and resources in the AFA Alliance Alumni Network, Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences, McDonald’s African American Council, University of Illinois Department of Food and Human Nutrition Ambassador Program, University of Illinois Black Alumni Network and Greenhouse Scholars. Tarleton is also the founding member and chair of the IFT African, African American and Black Resource Group and multicultural communications lead for McDonald’s African American Council.

“When I think about the ways Nick has made an impact on the food industry, I immediately think of his efforts to diversify the food industry through mentorship, coaching and career counseling,” says Ballard. “I see that as part of his career and life trajectory. He continually fosters those connections, opens up doors and creates pathways, access and opportunities for those who come behind him, so they have the tools to succeed.”

Tarleton was selected from more than 8,000 alumni to receive the 2022 AFA Bridge Builder Award on November 10, 2022, in Kansas City, MO, during the 2022 AFA Leaders Conference. To learn more about AFA and ways you can give to the food, agriculture and natural resources industry, visit