CIFT provides technical solutions to Ohio companies involved with Growers and Agricultural Producers. We help our clients with emerging technologies, industry best practices and novel business approaches. Our business advisors work with university researchers and government agencies on food safety and quality, new product and package development, manufacturing productivity, and small business development and training.
CIFT provides the following services for food producers:
Although traditionally engaged in the processing and end product aspects of the food industry, CIFT also studies enhanced growing practices. One such growing practice is the hoop house. Made of galvanized steel arches covered with polyethylene plastic,
hoop houses are typically temporary frames with no permanent foundation. The structures also feature adjustable side vents which provide a cheaper means of temperature control than traditional mechanical means. A hoop house can be constructed in various sizes that are conducive to growing different vegetables.
Hoop houses provide an economical way to increase profits and maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, use minimal land area and less energy than traditional greenhouse structures. Learn more about the benefits of a hoop house by clicking here.
Food Safety Consulting
CIFT offers a full range of food safety services to food processors through microbiological consulting and testing, food safety auditing, and food safety and quality training. Producers developing a new food product require microbial assistance and shelf stability testing. Fruit and vegetable producers can benefit from a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) consultation in efforts to prepare for required certifications from retailers. Mock audits reflect progress towards preparation of the USDA audit. Training seminars are also offered to demonstrate proper handling and production of food products including worker hygiene and sanitation practices.
In collaboration with the Ohio Farm Bureau, CIFT has conducted food safety and GMP audits with growers throughout Ohio and Indiana ensuring quality and safety in production.
New Market Opportunities
Growers can enhance business by exploring new markets for their products. CIFT's agribusiness advisors will help you understand how to market to consumers and provide the opportunities, issues and benefits associated with farmers' markets, and other venues.
Through direct marketing, more income remains with the producer while consumers benefit from fresh, wholesome alternative products with minimal processing.
CIFT is supported by the Ohio Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop program in exploring the following initiatives: innovative food safety documentation tools, dehydration of produce, and production and processing of edamame. All of these programs will provide information to growers interested in expanding operations, exploring new markets, or enhancing production.
For more information, download our free Producers' Resource Guide and visit Ohio's MarketMaker - an interactive mapping system that locates businesses and markets of agricultural products in Ohio, providing an important link between producers and consumers.
MarketMaker is a national partnership of land grant institutions and state departments of Agriculture dedicated to the development of a comprehensive interactive database of food industry marketing and business data. MarketMaker is a platform that seeks to foster business relationships between producers and consumers of food industry products and services. Click here to learn more.
Through CIFT's consortium of member companies including food processors, equipment manufacturers and institutions, multiple research projects are conducted addressing an agreed industry challenge. CIFT serves as the catalyst in advancing the research component and implementing it within the marketplace. Commercializing technology strengthens the proficiency, productivity and profitability of agribusinesses in the state of Ohio and the nation. By directly connecting the processor and researcher, technology transfer is heightened and accelerated via immediate need and available avenue for implementation. Click here to learn more.
Effective business models adapt to and evolve with market conditions. CIFT serves the critical needs of small-scale farmers trying to survive in an increasingly competitive environment. Opportunities exist for producers to foster new cooperatives or strengthen existing ones. CIFT's network of business advisors offers individuals information, technical assistance, and training on cooperative efforts. Groups of producers can get help with developing a concept and transforming a cooperative into a viable business entity.
Consumers today are expressing renewed interest in buying food directly from the farmer or grower. At one time, farmers markets flourished. Over the years, with improved transportation, improved storage facilities and modern mass merchandising, local farmers markets slowly disappeared.
The increasing price of gasoline and other transportation costs, partnered with the consumers' new awareness of the importance of fresh vegetables and fruit in the diet are creating new opportunities for marketing local produce through farmers markets. You don’t realize just what you are missing until you can finally purchase local strawberries. These bright red small gems are sold in the age old balsam quarts they have for generations. The taste is one of sweetness and the earth flavor from which they were picked. Then you truly know why people buy local from farmers markets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that as of 2010, there are more than 6,100 farmers markets across the country. In 1994, there were only 1,755.
Farmers markets are an ancient method used by farmers worldwide to sell their produce directly to consumers. As U.S. food productio n became increasingly industrialized and specialized, farmers markets were replaced by brokers and supermarkets. In the past two decades, however, farmers markets in the U.S. have rapidly regained popularity.
Farmers find a number of advantages in selling at farmers markets. By selling directly to their customers without going through middlemen, farmers can charge retail prices for their produce. A farmers market is a good place for new growers who are perfecting production skills and learning which products customers want most. In addition, many growers enjoy the interaction with customers and other vendors.
For customers, too, the farmers market is not just a place to buy food, but a social affair. A festive atmosphere helps to bring people to markets, where they can talk with farmers about how the produce was grown and how it can be prepared. Markets are starting up everywhere. Currently in northwest Ohio, the Toledo Farmers Market is downtown, while many other communities across these 18 counties hold one throughout the growing season.
There's much to like about farmers markets: fresh local vegetables and fruits picked at their peak, colorful cut flowers and herbs to add beauty and flavor to the table and the pot; baked goods, fresh eggs and poultry are intermingled with local crafts.
Now is the time to check out your local farmers market to see what local farmers have to offer. Food that is fresh and local fits right into the nationa l dialogue on food and the importance of cutting travel distance to the plate, and knowing where and how the food was grown. Consumers who purchase locally not only help support the farmers in the area, but they are helping the local economy since the money stays here. Local foods have better flavor than the well-traveled, tired varieties sold in grocery stores. If you are not sure, just taste a warm-from-the-field fresh local tomato and compare it to one from the store. So, come on down to the market, any market; the sights and smells of Mother Nature's bounty await those who look for fresh.
School lunches have not always been particularly healthy, and the school environment is not always entirely supportive of healthy food choices. Surveys in the early 1990’s showed that lunches exceeded the recommended daily allowances for fat and saturated fats.
In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) which included technical and educational resources for schools and new standards for the nutritional content of school lunches. In the years following, the implementation of the SMI program, most schools made changes in lunch menus to comply with national dietary guidelines. An unexpected consequence of these menu changes was a perception among school food authorities that students like the new lunches better than the previous menus by considerable margins. In general, cafeterias managers also tended to report less waste with the new menus as well. In essence, the outcome of making meals healthier for students was to increase students’ enjoyment and reduce the amount of food left on their plates.
School lunches often compete with foods that are not regulated by federal guidelines and often offer limited nutritional value. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2000, 98 percent of high schools, 74 percent of middle schools and 43 percent of elementary schools allowed student purchases of foods and beverages from vending machines, school stores, canteens and snack bars.
Furthermore, some schools choose to offer competing lunch options that are outside the USDA lunch program that are more appealing to students. Among these are a la carte options, particularly prevalent in upper grades, which allow students to choose only items that appeal to them.
A study by the USDA indicated that nine out of 10 schools offer a la carte options for students, principally fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, cookies or other baked goods not low in fat, or pizza, hamburgers and sandwiches. Districts use of a la carte and vending machines can vary widely. A report from California indicated that a la carte sales represented up to 70 percent of all food sold in schools.
A la carte sales represent a shift in school food revenue, and as such, generally are seen as having only limited impact on school budgets. Indeed, because a la carte offerings may be more attractive to students, they may actually increase food sales. Vending machines, on the other hand, generate revenue for school systems, but these gains are offset by losses to school meal programs. In the past, school lunches were derived from mostly local sources and prepared on site just prior to being served. The food industry that supplies restaurant and schools has been able to increase production, preparation and storage along with changes within distribution networks. All these changes signaled a shift to more highly processed foods bought from farms in any number of locations. Schools in the ‘60’s through the 70’s had bigger budgets to spend on kitchen help when the federal government had a surplus of commodities.
Unfortunately, the ‘80’s and ‘90’s burst that bubble and schools were forced to look at ways they could economize. This meant the number of lunch staff who prepared meals from scratch was now thinned out.
Lunches were made in a central kitchen from companies that supplied highly processed, heat-and-eat lunches that were economical and met the nutritional standards. Individual school kitchens were empty of fresh local produce, hot just-made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and freshly baked breads and rolls. The schools could now hire fewer staff that only needed to know how to work on oven and dishwasher, all to keep the budget in check. In order to save their budgets, many schools signed contracts with large beverage companies who were willing to pay millions of dollars to schools for the rights to install their soft drink vending machines in all the schools in the district.
Time marches on. Schools no longer teach Home Economics where students learned from middle school on about cooking, nutrition and making good food choices. Nutrition is something students see on posters in the lunchroom, a handout, and maybe a classroom exercise. Schools are focusing on teaching the core subjects, and health and nutrition are low on the priority list when it comes to state testing.
It is also a very difficult time for schools. On one hand they are discussing how students need to eat healthy and make good choices for lunch, but many schools have become dependant on the revenue from vending machines to cover items not in the budget. So limiting access to vending machines limits their own revenue.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution.
School nutrition directors often voice concern about the introduction of new foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, into the school lunch program. Specifically, a worry is that students will not eat these foods, thus increasing waste, or will shun school lunches entirely, affecting the financial bottom line of the school lunch program. There have been some success stories that have fresh local produce in the school cafeterias. Students ate the local fresh fruits and vegetables if they were on the menu; it just takes time to get it on the menu. Some successes included a local food day theme in the cafeteria where all local products were served.
First Lady Michelle Obama's Campaign
In an effort to bring together moms and dads, teachers, doctors, nurses and community leaders, First Lady, Michelle Obama, launched the Let's Move! campaign to help tackle the challenge of childhood obesity. Additionally, learn more about the USDA's guidelines for student lunches.
Department of Defense
Since 1994, the Department of Defense (DoD) has allowed hospital, schools and prisons the use of their produce buying services. The Department’s Logistics Agency operates two programs, including one – the DoD Farm to School Program (DoD F2SP) – which specifically seeks out local produce. Both programs are likely to purchase items from nearby, whenever possible. Schools can choose from up to 300 produce items, which vary with the season, to be delivered to them at a place and time that they designate.
Schools take attendance and submit their findings to the government, federal and state. These bodies in turn give the schools a monetary figure per student for lunches. The money is not given to them, but it represents reimbursement for what they bought for lunches. Along with this money, the federal government, through DoD F2SP, offers a wide variety of canned, dried and frozen commodities to purchase at a greatly reduced rate. These commodities can be everything from frozen individual applesauce servings to juices, pasta and beans, even meat.
Currently food service directors make out menus and schedules almost one year ahead of time. They take into consideration how many children they will be serving and what the USDA has deemed bonus commodities that are offered periodically, which can be canned pineapple, dried beans, frozen cherries, dehydrated potatoes and canned sweet potatoes. Food service directors are given a yearly listing of distributors, and companies they can do business with.
These suppliers have met the government criteria to be able to sell to the government. Food service directors use these suppliers for most of their purchases. They order in large quantities that are shipped as needed, which helps since school kitchens have little to no storage space. Many of the fresh products like tomatoes and peppers come from local wholesalers who do purchase fruits and vegetables from area farmers.
One such wholesaler in Toledo, Ohio, does minimally processed products that go to schools and restaurants throughout northwest Ohio. The area wholesalers are on a rotation so that all included in the program get used. The food service directors do have enough play in their budget to go and purchase extra items for treats during the year; they must however, come from a sanctioned supplier.
Commodities offered to the food service people are getting better. The USDA is offering frozen chicken crumbles and chicken burger style patties. They are also offering frozen ham in cubes and thin sliced, so they are not all meals made of burgers. The food service directors get a monthly newsletter from the USDA with updates on what is available.
There are new offerings of turkey products including bulk ground turkey meat for taco filing. There are also new whole grain products that are added to the list of whole wheat flour, rolled oats, regular brown rice, quick cooking brown rice, whole grain spaghetti, rotini, and macaroni.
Food service directors and personnel are able to attend a yearly conference where all the newest products/commodities are shown, and a wide variety of processed food suppliers are there to make sure all schools hear about their products. Seminars at this conference help directors make good healthy decisions about school lunches to make sure they are safe, appealing to the eye, taste great, are lower in fat, salt, sugar and fit in the budget.
This is a huge undertaking for food service personnel. They have the task of trying to keep children happy and well fed at a price that fits the budget. They must try to find different items to fill the vending machines that are healthy, and try to come up with ways the school system can stay in the black.
Today, the nation’s school lunch program is at a crossroad, faced with nutritional and service problems so serious they make news headlines. So many issues are involved: nutrition, facilities, childhood obesity, food service, student disinterest, vending, monetary supports through beverage companies, even lack of recess. All these areas are being addressed at the same time, with the government coming in and mandating health and fitness guidelines.
Nutritional content and quality of foods served are being looked at closely. Most meal components are ordered through the Department of Defense, and local fresh fruits and vegetables are not always considered when dollars are looked at to make sure there is a plus in the bottom line. The Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) is working on a program called the Farm to School Project with a few pilot schools to help them find local resources for products they serve in their cafeteria.
CIFT is willing to look for wholesalers that do indeed purchase fruits and vegetables from local farms. This is an indirect way that the local products will get into the schools. The partnering of the food service director and CIFT will help form a model that can be used in schools throughout northwest Ohio.
An ongoing project is to fabricate a local food item that can be offered to the schools in northwest Ohio. At this time, varieties of apples are being tested for their resistance to browning for a project that would get local, pre-sliced apples into the schools. This project is part of a school lunch task force formed by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.
Issues of Importance:
• All children and members of their community should have access to safe, affordable, healthy, and nutritious food.
• Healthy diets positively and directly impact students’ academic performance.
• Children will make healthy choices because of their involvement with food as part of their school curriculum.
• Local agriculture is important historically, and for the future.
• All communities should be investing in their school food system, from the farms, to the cafeterias, to the classrooms.
• School food policy must change to reflect local, healthy, and nutritious foods available to students.
• Food literate children will impact and change family purchasing, cooking, and eating patters.
• Through education on how our food is grown, harvested and prepared, children will gain confidence, develop thinking skills and feel they can control their own health and food choices, and influence their family’s choices.
The quest to buy local foods has been in the news practically every week. The public is constantly being asked to purchase fresh produce from their local farmers at their stands or at a farmers market.
Everyone can tell the difference between a local green bean steamed to perfection, and the canned version put on a plate. Consumers know the difference and chefs do also. The project has been to get the farmers and chefs to work together to put seasonal produce on their tables for the consumers. Not only is buying local good for the health of the people, but it also helps the environment and the local economy. Chefs buying local help farmers make a living and keep their farmland from becoming another housing development or retail center.
The Farm to Chef movement in northwest Ohio, also called the Northwest Ohio Fresh Network, partners more than 50 chefs, cooks and caterers with more than 50 farmers and producers. This partnership includes letting those who order foods know what fruits and vegetables are available locally that week and who is harvesting them.
Restaurants are a business, and like any business, they must be profitable. While the bottom line is always in sight, the restaurants still look for ways to bring interesting fruits, vegetables or other items to the menu that will make them heads above the rest. For example, the chef and staff will look at a regular order for bell peppers for a dish this week. To the staff a pepper is a pepper, and if they can order from a national food distributor and it comes to the back door at a relatively inexpensive price, the farmer may have a hard time competing. However, if a farm highlights they are carrying "jingle bell" miniature bell peppers (no bigger than a silver dollar) – which lets a restaurant taste them to prove they are mature and not bitter – the chefs will take notice and buy the product that will make their dish fantastic.
Why? Because it is unique and something they cannot get from their wholesale produce house.
Heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback for this reason. Heirloom tomatoes are full of great flavor, but are not a tomato that can be shipped like the usual pale orbs the restaurants receive. The varieties are beautiful, and the chef will pay for the chance to have patrons taste these local beauties that have thin skins that bruise if handled too much. These kinds of examples are a few of what the restaurants do on a daily basis. Patrons of restaurants who use local fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses are getting the freshest meals possible.
Fresh produce coming is usually not minimally processed. It is clean and chilled, but not minced, chopped or sliced. The nutrients are still in the items, and they remain fresh until they are processed in-house for that night's dinner service. More room and help will be necessary to process items for dinner, which of course will add to the expenses of the day. But, when fresh steamed green beans are served with fresh herb butter, the potatoes are colorful fingerlings and the salad has torn local loose leaf lettuces and spinach, and in no way resembles the bagged salad served at home, price does not become an issue. Patrons savor these dinners. They tell their friends. They ask where the items came from, and usually the patrons shop at a local farmers market shortly after a great meal like this to duplicate that great meal at home.
What should you do before contacting a restaurant? Planning is paramount; being prepared is expected. With these ideas in mind, here are a few strategies:
• Write up a history about your farm and be prepared to share your history with others. Writing it down will make you think and not forget something really important.
• Make a list of what you are growing, and when things will be available. If you are going to visit a restaurant during the growing season and have product available, take samples along.
• Know your product and why it is good or different.
• Figure a price for all products; take into account by the bushel, box of how many, or by the pound. This will all help the restaurant when it comes time to order. Put these prices on a list that can be left, and make sure you have a copy.
• Look your best, and talk about how you can help the restaurant. Be friendly.
• Understand that restaurants are constantly busy; don’t take it to heart if they don’t have time to chit chat, or they ask you to leave everything.
• Make and take a few business cards. A card with your name on it can be found easier than the heading on a price list.
• Check out the menu and clientele of your targets to see that your produce is something they can use.
• Figure out beforehand if you will be able to deliver items on a regular schedule.