Marin Cherry, M.S. ’15, course coordinator for Food Science 4000, left, with Professor Chang “Cy” Lee, who teaches the class.

Cornell’s recipe for public engagement

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Joe Schwartz

Food science majors at work in a testing lab.

Last spring, food science major Maddie Parish ’17 and other members of her team in the capstone course Food Science 4000 helped a food producer solve a critical production challenge: Microbial spoilage was occurring soon after packaging of the ready-to-eat sesame product.

While the microbes were not dangerous to consume, they were visually unappealing and customers were returning the product to stores.

The partner “had been working for five years on this issue without finding any solution. It was a bit intimidating,” Parish admits, “because we were told [it] needed to be solved for the company to survive. So we were under a bit of pressure … but this is a situation [that] happens in the real world.”

The partnership formed, the food producer offered them all the ingredients used and full knowledge about the company, the product and the production facility; Parish and her team worked collaboratively with the producer and with the Cornell Food Venture Center (FVC) in Geneva, New York.

After testing many environmental samples from swab kits in the lab, the team found that the root cause of the microbial spoilage was utensils that had not been sanitized effectively prior to manufacturing. “We used the scientific method to find the cause and, therefore, the solution to our partner’s problem,” she says. “This helped us realize that this is what the Food Venture Center does: It uses food science and the scientific method to help companies – often the smaller companies, the entrepreneurs, the startups – to succeed.”

Parish’s hands-on research and consulting experience is typical of all Cornell seniors in food science, who each spring take the capstone course. An Engaged Curriculum Grant in 2015 transformed a traditional weekly lecture seminar into a leading example of hands-on community engagement and learning at the university.

The experience “made me realize how broad a spectrum of the public Cornell engages,” Parish says. “I knew that our university partnered with large organizations for research purposes, but public engagement reaches from the small farmer to the budding entrepreneur to large corporations.”

In the course, “we were able to use the skills that we learned in the laboratory and classes to successfully make recommendations and help a real-world problem,” she explains. “It was a project that had value, and in the end, it was an extremely satisfying feeling knowing that we made a positive impact on someone’s business.”

Fostering community engagement

Engaged Cornell (engaged.cornell.edu), established in 2014 through a gift from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and launched the following year, is an initiative that nurtures a community engagement culture across the university. In fostering that spirit, it champions research, curricula and activities with partnerships and students at their core; in support, Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives (OEI) advances this work through funding and grants, training, and a variety of other programs with campus partners. (See other universitywide examples of Engaged Cornell’s effects.)

This collaborative focus prepares students to become global citizens who can lead social change, part of a broader public engagement mission and commitment that has been at Cornell’s core since its founding.

Marin Cherry, M.S. ’15, course coordinator for Food Science 4000, says when she and others in the department first learned about OEI and the Engaged Curriculum Grants program, they started looking at the existing curriculum and “decided that it really needed to change.”

For the original seminar-based course, “we brought in speakers, whether faculty or from the industry, and the students would sit there and listen attentively and maybe write some reflections,” Cherry says. “While it was a capstone experience for our seniors, it wasn’t challenging them to really use their food science knowledge; it was only broadening their perspectives within it.

“They’ve gone from being talked at to being full participants in the conversation, which is great.”

Chang “Cy” Lee, professor of food science, teaches the class. He notes “most of the seniors, during their four years as food science majors, have learned many things – chemistry, microbiology, engineering, food safety, sensory analysis. Since they are heading off to work in the food industry, to be able to use that knowledge directly applied to an industry problem is an ideal situation.”

Through the curriculum development grant, the food science capstone course embraced public engagement through an economic development focus and a small-business development perspective, Cherry says. “These are mainly smaller food producers,” she explains of the entrepreneurs the FVC partners with. “Some of them are working in their kitchens; a few are just a one- or two-person operation; they don’t necessarily have the resources to hire a consulting firm or someone who would do this work for them. We’re targeting that segment of the food industry.”

The course, taken by about 30 students each spring, is “rooted in student experiential learning” while also matching needs of food entrepreneurs and producers – building on existing strong relationships, resources and services already provided by the FVC, says Anna Bartel, associate director for community-engaged curricula and practice for the OEI.

Food Venture Center

An extension program of the Department of Food Science that began in 1988, the Cornell Food Venture Center in Geneva fields thousands of requests for assistance and works directly with more than 400 producers on the commercialization of more than 1,200 food products each year.

Olga Padilla-Zakour, FVC director, professor and chair of the Department of Food Science, notes that the center focuses on new products’ regulatory compliance, safety and stability, “and therefore we value the opportunity to involve food science students in projects that go beyond what the FVC can do to really make a difference in the success of a small company,” she says. “The students are able to apply their knowledge under challenging situations where teamwork, resourcefulness, time management and appreciation for the companies’ needs and know-how are critical.”

FVC researchers may help businesses develop food safety plans, conduct technical feasibility studies for products in development, give feedback on formulation adjustments or help find providers and suppliers for particular testing or food production needs.

Lee chaired the food science department 2002-08 and also collaborated with research and extension efforts at the FVC, forging relationships between Cornell, industry partners and small-scale entrepreneurs. He says the center’s work with food entrepreneurs and the regional agricultural industry is integral to Cornell’s land-grant mission, and in recent years, Geneva faculty have been participating in more teaching in addition to conducting research and extension activities.

“It’s a combination of everything in terms of education,” Lee says. “If we’re able to teach our students and at the same time work with regional entrepreneurs and industry people, helping their businesses grow while also having a positive impact on the economy in the area – that’s the original idea of engagement.”

A ‘real-life experience’

Bruno Xavier, left, extension associate at Cornell and processing authority at the Food Venture Center, consults with Marco Ballatori, executive chef at RealEats Meals, at the center.

Halle Bershad ’17, who is now working as an associate food scientist at Mondelēz International and would eventually like to become a food entrepreneur, says the course “showed me the difficulty in starting your own business. There are many aspects that must be considered, or your product will never make it to the shelf or could end up making a consumer sick.” She notes many of the food entrepreneurs did not have a food science or culinary background, making the students’ work, and the FVC’s, even more important.

“This is a real-life experience,” says Bruno Xavier, an extension associate at Cornell and processing authority at the FVC. “These are commercial products from real companies that must be financially viable. As a result, there may be very different expectations between the students and the manufacturers. And I think that’s an important learning experience, too.”

The students “really see this as a useful experience that’s challenging them in the best way,” Cherry says. “It’s not easy, but it allows them to act like professionals. And that’s something that they look for; it gives them a perspective on an area of the food industry that they otherwise would generally not have.”

The experience – which participants say is more deeply embedded in small-business entrepreneurship and local economies than an internship – gives the students exposure to a different set of skills they may need after graduation.

“Our students generally intern at the big companies – the Krafts, the Pepsis, the Mondelēzes of the food world,” Cherry says. “If you connect them with a food entrepreneur or a small manufacturer – it’s a completely different set of resource and time constraints. It’s fascinating to watch them figure it out.”

Cherry notes that for food science majors who intern or go to work at big food manufacturers, those companies often have ample stockrooms that make gathering supplies and conducting bench trials easy and unconstrained.

But for students who teamed up with small food manufacturers and entrepreneurs in the course, they had to find out how to order samples of packages and supplies for testing and production trials – “and, by the way, how much does it all cost and what is a reasonable budget for this part of the process? Is this too expensive?” Cherry notes. “They have to manage their own budget in partnership with the food entrepreneurs we’ve paired them with.”

Adam Friedlander ’16 took the course in spring 2016, and he and his team worked with Merle Maple Farm, a maple producer based in Attica, New York, to develop a maple-flavored soda; in previous attempts the company had struggled with keeping the pH of the beverage within a shelf-stable range while maintaining maple flavor.

“Our team functioned as a miniature startup consulting company,” Friedlander recalls. “With our available funds, we learned how to allocate our resources efficiently, develop stronger project management skills, and deliver precise research and development results for the maple farm.” The budget from the department includes funding to pay for the food manufacturers to come to campus at least once, and usually twice, during the semester.

Friedlander says the close partnership with Cornell food scientists and Merle Maple Farm producers was crucial to the team’s, and the course’s, success.

“Without it, our team could not have tackled challenges, such as sensory analysis trials, ingredient formulation and production scale-up for manufacturing in larger batches,” he says.

Leveling the playing field for small manufacturers

Food science majors at work in a testing lab.

Terry Lee Gonzalez of 10x Wow is a first-time food manufacturer based in Florida who worked with one of the food science course teams this past spring (one of the first producers outside New York state to do so). Her product, a fresh-fermented garlic sauce, is innovative, and to be able to sell in big-box stores, she had to demonstrate the safety of her product for state officials and develop a food safety plan to be competitive in the marketplace.

The students and the FVC not only worked with Gonzalez on manufacturing, stability and food safety issues, but they also helped her navigate her state’s dilemma of not knowing how to regulate her product (as a fresh product that would need to be refrigerated, as a fermented food or as an acidified food).

Before finding Cornell and the FVC, Gonzalez had called around the country trying to find a food processing authority willing to work with her unique product. “Cornell was a lot more innovative; instead of boxing me in, they looked at all available options and made recommendations from there,” she says.

Gonzalez says that the selection committee for the course set both the students and her up for success “by making sure that the scope of the project played to the students’ training. It was a real-world, real-life project, where we were looking at food safety, shelf life and improving the quality of the product I produce.”

First-time food manufacturers often produce a product “and they go to a farmers market, and they build traction that way,” Gonzalez says. “But how do you approach a company like Whole Foods, or Winn-Dixie, or Trader Joe’s, unless you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed your t’s?” Those companies do want innovative products, she says, but they are justifiably concerned about food safety and liability.

“What really touched me is how committed Cornell’s students and professors are to bringing innovative, tasty and safe food to market and leveling the playing field,” Gonzalez says. “The capstone project has provided me with the opportunity to compete with larger players.”

Reflections on engagement

As befits a holistic academic initiative, Engaged Cornell also seeks to elevate a critical reflection process as a key part of the experience to advance learning.

“Normally our students are asked to think critically in a laboratory environment, or in a classroom environment where there is focus on the food – a very specific problem,” Cherry says. But the course was developed to include critical reflection: asking students to look back to assess what they have learned; what preconceived notions they may have had; and how they interact with their partners, teammates and the staff and faculty of the department.

Friedlander, like many of the food science majors who have graduated since 2016, has incorporated critical reflection into his perspective on the course, and on his Cornell education, with natural ease.

“While there weren’t any prelims for this class, my fellow classmates and I learned lessons arguably more important than an exam grade – public service,” he says. “This class not only made us better scientists, public speakers and community leaders, but it helped us spread our knowledge of food science.”

Friedlander, who now works as a food safety specialist at a trade association representing food retailers in Washington, D.C., says the course “was a culmination of my entire food science education. … Participating in this course gave me great experience in all aspects of food science and kept me on track to pursue my passion.”

That passion is reflected in the partnerships nurtured through the FVC and Food Science 4000, now a hallmark of the food science experience – and an example of practical, engaged learning that is becoming a common thread in a Cornell undergraduate education.

This story originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Ezra magazine.


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