Auburn's Food Entrepreneur Working Group receives USDA award for innovative programs and projects

Published: September 23, 2016
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The USDA has recognized the efforts of an Auburn University team that is working to boost the economy in rural Alabama areas by introducing food entrepreneurship. The Auburn University Food Systems Institute's Food Entrepreneur Working Group has received the prestigious Partnership Award for Innovative Programs and Projects from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA.

The NIFA Partnership Awards recognize outstanding contributions by NIFA partners at cooperating institutions. Auburn University will be recognized at the annual NIFA Day of Appreciation on Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C.

The award acknowledges the efforts of a team led by Jean Weese, the Food Systems Institute's associate director and head of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's food safety and quality team. The work brings together faculty and staff from the Food Systems Institute, the food safety team, various academic units, Auburn University campus dining and the Small Business Development Center, which is funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In her work throughout the state, Weese saw that food entrepreneurship could offer hope in rural communities where many people who have jobs could be classified as "working poor," and where infrastructure is so poor and educational levels so low that industry is unlikely to locate.

"Making food entrepreneurship a viable alternative in rural communities depends on reaching those who have a product suitable for commercialization, but they often lack the sophistication and skills necessary to operate a business," Weese said.

The working group's top objective was to provide a network for food entrepreneurs to receive assistance with food testing and labeling, writing a business plan, finding financing, fulfilling state Department of Health, USDA and FDA regulations, selling to restaurants and big box stores and marketing and promotion.

The capstone project has been a yearly Food Entrepreneur Conference, sponsored by the Food Systems Institute and its partner, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Special guests and conference mentors have included Alabama entrepreneur Patricia "Sister" Barnes of Sister Schubert's Homemade Rolls, who started business in her kitchen in Troy.

Guests have also heard from industry and academic experts such as Auburn University marketing professors, the director of campus dining, food safety specialists, regulation specialists from the Alabama Department of Public Health and buyers for grocery stores. A popular part of the event has been the opportunity to hear "real life stories" from other entrepreneurs participating in panel discussions.

Participation in the conference has grown every year, and working group members are developing a website to serve as a comprehensive source of information for aspiring food entrepreneurs. In general, $1 million of investment in the Alabama food industry creates 18 direct jobs in the state, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

For more information, contact Jean Weese at weesesj@auburn.edu or kochaja@auburn.edu.