Michigan State University has been awarded $500,000 over the next five years to support the food processing certificate program offered through the Institute of Agricultural Technology in East Lansing and at partnering community colleges.
The work at MSU is funded by USDA through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and is part of a $4.8 million investment to support 12 projects that will offer workforce training by community colleges. These awards are made possible through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Agricultural Workforce Training.
There are roughly 3,280 food processing facilities and food warehouses in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). The growing need to fill operator and middle management positions with skilled employees has continued to be an issue for the state.
“One of the challenges within the food processing industry is finding qualified personnel. Through this program, we’re going to help fill that pipeline,” says Randy Showerman, IAT director. “We’re also working on further curriculum development with industry partners to address their specific needs.”
7 years in the works
Early discussions began in 2013 among MSU and food processing industry stakeholders. Initial funding was provided by MDARD to help develop a food processing program, renovate a campus food processing lab and build the first mobile food processing lab.
Kelly Millenbah, senior associate dean for the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), has been leading the initiative along with Darrell Donahue, chair of the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering; Nancy Turner, chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; Jeff Swada, director of the undergraduate food science program; and Showerman with IAT.
The two-year IAT Food Processing, Technology and Safety certificate program, launched in fall 2019, trains students in the processes and technologies used to convert commodities into consumable food products. Graduates of the program receive an MSU certificate and associate degree from one of the IAT community college partners.
The food processing program is available at MSU in East Lansing, as well as at community college partners: Delta College in University Center, Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Muskegon Community College in Muskegon, and Wayne Community College District-Downriver in Taylor. The NIFA funding supports ongoing program expansion.
“Our community college partners are a key link in the program,” Showerman says. “They are on the front lines of addressing labor needs in their communities.”
A mobile food processing lab is part of the program and will offer hands-on experience to students at community college locations, ensuring they have the skills necessary to perform effectively in the food processing industry. The completed mobile lab has arrived at MSU, with a plan to visit community college partners as soon as possible.
Recent MSU graduates Katie Church, who majored in biosystems engineering, and Lauren Kitada, who majored in food science, worked closely with Donahue and Swada to develop the initial design concepts for the mobile food processing lab.
Donahue and Swada provided critical expertise throughout the trailer design process, and the entire team provided input on the certificate program curriculum. Swada worked closely with Featherlite, the company that constructed the mobile food processing lab, to ensure the equipment and layout met instructional needs.
“We wanted to mirror what students would see in the industry once they graduate — just at a small scale. That meant the whole trailer was built to demonstrate the needs for food-grade processing,” Swada says. “We also needed to make sure the trailer was meeting the demands of the curriculum for the certificate program at the same time as the curriculum was being developed.”
All the equipment in the mobile processing lab was specially developed, based on the scale and mobility requirements of the trailer and to allow for versatility. In addition to the mobile food processing equipment, the air filtration, electrical, compressed air, and steam and water systems also needed to be custom-made.
Additional mobile labs are planned for development as financing is secured.
“Hands-on training helps with critical thinking, and those kinds of skills and thought processes will help students really excel in their careers,” Turner says. “Another thing the certificate program does is introduce students to what food science is. For some students, that introduction may provide the impetus to pursue a bachelor’s degree.”
Michigan is the second-most agriculturally diverse state in the U.S., with more than 300 agricultural products. The Food Processing, Technology and Safety program can support the growing food processing industry, as well as ongoing development of food systems to bring viable jobs to state residents.
“The demands created by changes in current food technologies, standards and safety requirements mean that meeting the personnel needs of these expanding businesses are contingent on availability of an educated and skilled workforce,” Millenbah says. “This educational program has the potential for extensive impact on the workers, employees and their families in the Great Lakes region.”