Region's colleges pep students for food careers

2013-11-13T08:00:00Z Region's colleges pep students for food careersJIM MORTWEDT Chippewa Valley Business Report Chippewa Herald

When you chew your food, should you thank higher ed, too?

Contributions by higher education to the value-added food sector in the Chippewa Valley are immense, if little noted.

Three applied majors — one each at Chippewa Valley Technical College, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout — illustrate direct, substantial and ongoing work leading to a supply of trained talent.

The Nestle plant in Eau Claire, for example, has become the largest unit of infant formula production for the firm anywhere. Nestle, a Swiss giant, may be the largest food company in the world. A UW-Eau Claire spokesperson says the plant’s payroll includes perhaps 90 grads doing an array of work, from its labs to supervision to sales.

Three other majors at the same schools are less directly food sector, but hardly less important. Packaging at Stout, chemistry at UWEC and electromechanical technology at CVTC each account for contributions of other talent to the value-added food sector in the Chippewa Valley and beyond. Contributions by the schools, however, are by no means limited to either applied or other majors.

To be clear, value-added food does not include agriculture, the behemoth industry from which it springs. Agriculture and higher education have a long and path-finding history, often dated back to Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act in 1862 establishing land grant colleges. Most of the colleges of the Big Ten are such.

Agriculture and value-added food in the United States are historic in their successes. U.S. supermarket shelves fairly groan with consumer selection. Items stocked per supermarket tripled from 1980 to 1999, from 15,000 to nearly 50,000. And there’s been an upward spike since. Food exports are the salvation of our trade balance. Starvation from want of calories in North America is rare, even if malnutrition is not.

Oh, there are ills and controversies in the food industry. Forty-two million in the U.S. are on food stamps and excess of the wrong sort of food can be said to be a leading problem with the U.S. diet. There’s endless debate about diet and health, genetically modified organisms, consumer recalls, processed versus organic foods, acidic versus alkaline, additives, herbicides and more.

What cannot be debated is the abundance and safety of the U.S. food supply. It is unprecedented in world history. And it is responsible for Americans spending a smaller share of their income on food than the rest of the world.

A case is easily made that higher education is a leading force for much of the success of a food supply that is not only abundant, but overwhelmingly safe.

Food science at Stout

UW-Stout’s Naveen Chikthimmah provides the clarity of an outside perspective. A native of the Indian subcontinent and holder of a prestigious science Ph.D. from Penn State, Chikthimmah has a perspective on food that he sometimes graphically describes to his students in Menomonie.

He remembers as a boy being asked by an aunt to behead a chicken for a meal, doing so, and feeling the blood of the animal flow warmly from his hand down his arm.

His storytelling aims to provoke thought about food in his young, mostly American students; where it comes from, how it can be produced, prepared and preserved, and how precious it is to many.

The son of a tea buying and processing mother in India, Chikthimmah remembers marveling as a boy at a can of sweetened milk. He was stunned by the can’s ability to seemingly preserve the milk indefinitely. India’s privations left a mark on Naveen the lad, who today is Professor Chikthimmah at an esteemed polytechnic in the heart of the U.S. dairy industry.

He is charged with teaching food science and technology, using microbiology and chemistry to develop new and superior food products. Chikthimmah says not to be lost is the opportunity created for the sons and daughters of the Chippewa Valley and beyond. Impressive careers await graduates of the rigorous program, he emphasizes. The world’s population in his career will expand by billions. The food scientists produced by UW-Stout will certainly be called upon to play ever larger roles.

UWEC targets food safety

The global village impacts Dr. Crispin Pierce’s students no less. His environmental and public health major at UW-Eau Claire has educated about 55 graduates in the last five years and achieved 100-percent placement of those grads.

International trade agreements have done much in just the past 10 years to boost imports of fresh produce to the U.S. and create a demand for more scrutiny of food imports. Frequently there is disparity in foreign and domestic food standards. And while his grads most often serve as public health generalists, with portfolios including responsibilities in everything from immunizations to STDs, safe water and safe food are part of the core of their education.

“Graduates of our program serve the public by providing information and inspection of food establishments, reducing foodborne illness and associated liability,” Pierce says. “Alumni choosing to work in industry are the foundations of health and safety programs to protect workers and facilitate productivity.”

The downside risk of a food recall can send the stock of a publicly-traded food firm plummeting, making for unhappy, even litigious shareholders. Going to work every day to help manage that risk are graduates of Pierce’s program, a major seemingly poised to grow in importance as world trade, travel and communication charge a new era.

CVTC starting food program

Quick to serve the changing workplace, CVTC intends to soon formalize a yet-to-be named food program, designed to give technical college students with a food science interest transferability to a number of universities including UW-Stout, says Jeff Sullivan, a newly installed associate dean.

Dr. John Wagner and Hans Mikelson, known for their nanotechnology instruction, will also teach in the new associate degree food program. Mikelson says the Food Safety Modernization Act is creating demand for the two-year degree.

The Food and Drug Administration calls the act of 2011 “the most sweeping in 70 years,” with an emphasis on the prevention of food borne pathogens and contaminants. Federal regulators in the past have focused on responding to contamination, the FDA says. More food scientists and technicians are certain to be needed.

Discovery Center adds value

Talent is one thing, training another. UW-Stout’s Discovery Center, staffed by Renee Surdik and Randy Hulke, is charged with applying Stout’s considerable fund of industry expertise to the needs of firms. The center has four goals: advance knowledge, enhance student learning, provide solutions to industry, and promote economic development in the region.

Working with Stout’s Manufacturing Outreach Center, the Discovery Center enables project management across disciplines and on site, Hulke says. He emphasizes that the effort is far from an encroachment of the work of private consulting firms, and is first and foremost focused “on adding value to the future of the student.”

All of which includes extensive but not exclusive work for the value-added food sector. Sconnie Foods and Fiberstar are two recent interesting examples, not the least because their chief executives are wed. Brock and Tracy Lundberg (see sidebar) both have offices at CVTC and attribute part of their success to higher ed.

Brock, the CEO of Fiberstar, is a newly minted University of Minnesota Ph.D. He is a food engineer and his R&D firm is now selling in 60 countries. His high surface area orange fiber products are engineered to augment and impart enhanced taste and texture characteristics in food products.

Not too many years ago, Tracy Lundberg noticed a puddling or denaturing of the sauerkraut at a ball game. She complained to Brock and he more offhandedly than seriously told her to start her own sauerkraut firm. She took him up on it and today her product is on a growing number of supermarket shelves with much broader distribution planned. Both have offices and use labs in CVTC’s Applied Technology Center, and both owe much to educators.

CVTC, working with state grants, has trained hundreds of food sector workers recently.

“Over the last two years, CVTC’s Business and Industry Services staff has partnered with regional food service industry businesses to train over 750 incumbent workers in topics including welding, transportation, electromechanical and safety,” says Roxann Vanderwyst, director of Business and Industry Services at the technical college.

All educators interviewed for this article believe a new emphasis should be placed on the food sector’s potential for economic development in the Chippewa Valley. Tempting as it may be to chase high tech, shouldn’t Wisconsin stick to its knitting?

More than 1,000 food firms locate in Wisconsin with a payroll of 63,000, according to the Midwest Food Processors Association. In the U.S. the food sector contributes 20 percent of the gross domestic product. It’s a benevolent sleeping giant often reared by higher education. And no foreign nation with low labor costs can ever seduce the sleeping giant into a foreign fling.

Jim Mortwedt is a freelance writer and marketer now living in Minnesota, and can be reached at jmortwedt@icloud.com.

Copyright 2015 Chippewa Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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