The environment and the things that impact it have been a lifelong interest for Noreen Warnock, thanks in part to regular childhood hikes with her father. “As I got out of college and into my work world, environmental issues and social justice issues were the things that really drew me,” says Warnock, director of public policy and community relations for Local Matters, a nonprofit she co-founded six years ago.

Local Matters works to strengthen the local food system—from production through consumption—via lessons in gardening and cooking as well as helping to foster community gardens and small, food-based businesses. Its Food Matters classes teach 1,000 young children weekly, while three Veggie Vans (with financial support from the Greener Grocer at the North Market) regularly bring produce to underserved neighborhoods.

Warnock also co-chairs the Franklin County Local Food Council and sits on the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s agriculture working group, the Columbus Public Health Columbus Area Healthy Food Access Committee and the United Way of Central Ohio Public Policy Committee.

What’s the best part of your job? “The best part is the people. … I always say, ‘It’s too bad anybody has to do this work,’ but we do, and the people that we work with here at Local Matters and out in the community are, for the most part, really wonderful.”

What’s your biggest challenge? “The people. I would say that we’re living in a very challenged culture right now, economically, especially, and there’s a lot of tension … but overall, it very much weighs on the positive side.”

How do you maintain a work-life balance? Warnock, 64, has two children, Elyse Leonard, 22, and Gavin DeVore Leonard, 31, as well as a granddaughter. Musician Eric Ahlteen is her longtime partner. She says her life and work are “so intertwined. I mean, we all eat food every day, and for me, I can’t think of an issue that food doesn’t connect to. … I never look at it as ‘life or work.’ ”

What strengths do women bring to the workplace? Warnock says she doesn’t analyze the strengths of women compared with men. “What I’m interested in is the bigger issue of why don’t women have equal pay? Why are there so few women in government, from the local level to the federal government?”

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? Warnock names her parents, the late Bob Warnock and Hazel Warnock, 94. Her father, a World War II veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, “was an inspiration to me in terms of his love of nature, his creativity and his always asking questions.” Her mother grew up “basically an orphan in Northern Ireland … and had a very challenging life in her younger years, yet there was always joy in her.”

What are your goals for the next five years? Poverty is at the root of many problems, including access to healthful food, says Warnock. She plans to “work with others to advocate for fair economic policies that address the negative social problems caused by the large gap between rich and poor.”

How can employers ensure that more women achieve high-ranking positions? It’s about looking at things systematically, both in the workplace and in the world outside, says Warnock: “For me, it’s a big commitment issue. If you make that commitment, then you will find a way to make that happen.”

Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the May 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.