2012-4-30The Chilton Food Innovation Center, a fully equipped industrial kitchen that will provide local farmers and other aspiring entrepreneurs with opportunities and technical assistance with food processing, will be formally launched Tuesday, May 1. The formal opening will begin at 2 p.m. at the Center, located on 13 First Avenue in Clanton.

The Food Innovation Center is a grassroots effort made possible by people from several local and state public and private entities. Any grower with an acidified food trying to move a product into retail sales is eligible to use the center. All that is required is to fill out an application, which is subject to approval by the Innovation Center’s board of directors. Board member J. Sam Johnson expresses high hope that the center will secure long-term economic benefits for the produce industry, which is so vital to Chilton County and the rest of central Alabama. “I want to see it develop as a small-business incubator that spawns multiple successful businesses that draw from the produce of central Alabama.”

For years, local leaders and citizens alike have expressed regrets that no such facility was available in this central Alabama county or surrounding counties to add value to locally grown produce, especially less suitable produce that because of over-ripening or size could not be sold and was typically discarded. As much as 30 percent of locally grown produce is discarded for these reasons.

Of equal concern to local growers is that so much of the processed food sold in jars and other containers at local vendor and retail outlets in this predominantly agricultural county are actually made from nonlocal products, even though they are often stamped with a Chilton County address. Until now, the biggest challenge for growers has been lack of a fully equipped processing center. Alabama law requires that all retail foods be processed within an inspected kitchen. The costs of such processing centers are far beyond the reach of most growers.

For many years, growers and other local residents have expressed a desire for a fully equipped community kitchen that local growers could use to process their surplus produce into profitable items. “It’s an idea that has been tossed around for a long time,” says Gay West, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Chilton County coordinator and one of the principal architects of this effort.

West’s colleague, Jim Pitts, superintendent of the local Chilton Research and Extension Center and another principal mover behind the effort, provided industrial kitchen equipment that had previously been donated to his facility but for which he could find no use. Along with enlisting the help of Alabama Extension food scientist Dr. Jean Weese, another key player and adviser in the effort, West and Pitts also were able to secure a permanent facility — a former school cafeteria, which was donated by the local school board. In time, a preliminary board of directors was also developed.

West and Pitts also secured the support of several local public and private entities, including the City of Clanton, the Board of Education, a local bank and the Alabama Farmers Federation. A Specialty Crops Grant from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and additional funding from the Cawaco Resource Conservation and Development Council also enabled West and Pitts to hire a professional food scientist, Christiana Mendoza, to manage the center.

For their part, West and Pitts see the effort as an especially noteworthy example of the longstanding land-grant university emphasis on forging close working partnerships at the grassroots level. “All of us university folks out here are like cousins — we’ve all got the same kinfolk,” says Pitt. “Whether we’re Cooperative Extension or Research, it’s all about connecting people with questions to people with answers. “It takes all of us to make it work.” For more information about the opening, call the Chilton County Extension office at (205) 280-6268.