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CALS, eCornell, specialty food group team up for training

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Twelve years ago, specialty foods were a mere 4% of U.S. retail food sales. By 2018, they accounted for 15% – almost $150 billion in sales – and the industry continues to grow.

Consumer interest in specialty foods has grown so quickly, companies and universities have struggled to keep up with the need for training the entrepreneurs, distributors and retailers who are working to meet the demand. That’s why the Specialty Food Association (SFA), eCornell and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have teamed up to create an online certificate training program: the Professional Food Buyer Course.

The new course – the first in eCornell’s nearly 20-year history to be developed with a food industry partner – will be available exclusively through the eCornell platform on June 22.

“If you look at disciplines and you look at college preparation, there’s really no ‘specialty food department’ that will train people to do this kind of job,” said Robert Gravani, professor emeritus of food science and head of the project. “Most people are already in the business and grow into the buyer position; they’re not formally trained in it.”

That transition can be difficult for food buyers, distributors and retailers, who are accustomed to working with larger companies that have mastered the logistics of growing, packaging, storing, distributing and marketing a food item. For small startups and entrepreneurs, which supply the bulk of the fast-growing specialty food market, working out the steps of the supply chain in coordination with buyers is crucial for their success, said Ron Tanner, vice president of philanthropy, government and industry relations for the SFA.

“Specialty food buyers may discover a new product and fall in love with it, but they may not realize how the supply chain would work for them to get the product,” Tanner said. “A large company like a Wegmans or a Whole Foods wants to get that product on the shelves, but if you don’t know the capacity for the producer to actually deliver a consistent product, you’ll end up with out-of-stocks and other problems.”

In developing this collaborative course, Cornell faculty and staff interacted regularly with an SFA Advisory Council to discuss where training was needed, and drafts of the course were reviewed and improved by both teams, said Julie Stafford, who recently retired as industry liaison officer for the Cornell Institute for Food Systems.

“This was a new step for CALS and eCornell … but I think it’s totally in keeping with the public-private partnership approach that CALS has really been known for,” Stafford said. “I think we’ll be doing more initiatives like this in the future.”

SFA reached out to several universities and industry groups about developing the course, Tanner said. They ultimately chose to partner with Cornell because of the university’s demonstrated ability to work collaboratively across disciplines.

For example, Stafford said, food service is a new growth area for specialty foods, and Cornell Dining helped develop parts of the course.

“The real thing that sold us on Cornell,” Tanner said, “was that the various schools – food science, nutrition, business, hotel administration – everyone seemed to have something to contribute and everyone was willing to work together to make this a better product.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Lindsey Hadlock