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Students learn about food business through Chicago food scene

March 4, 2019

Zach Jacobs and Margaret Benson stand next to an AFA sign at the 2019 Agriculture Future of America Food Institute.
Zach Jacobs, left, and Margaret Benson, right, pictured at the 2019 Agriculture Future of America Institute in Chicago.

As upperclassmen in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Margaret Benson and Zach Jacobs have become familiar with more than just their university campus and the town it presides in.  

Aspiring to careers advocating agriculture on a national scale, Benson, ‘20, and Jacobs, ‘19, recently attended the Agriculture Future of America Food Institute, which was held at the Hyatt, McDonald’s campus in Chicago, Illinois, to gain further insight into the food industry, providing specific insights into how food moves from farm to table.

“The institute was an amazing experience,” said Jacobs. “It was really inspiring to meet students from around the country with similar passions and converse with professionals about where their passions took them in life.”

Listening to a lecture by Kim Kirchherr, who is a registered dietitian and a certified personal trainer, Benson and Jacobs learned about food life cycles and uncovered ways to reduce food waste in their daily lives.

“It was great to learn how the conversation on food waste can be opened up on a global scale,” said Benson. “We learned how people with all kinds of different backgrounds, related to food or not, can openly discuss how food waste can be reduced.”

The institute also provided Benson and Jacobs with an opportunity to discuss hot topics in the food industry including take-out food, feeding the growing population, and what it means to be ‘organic’ or ‘non-GMO.’

As part of the institute, Benson and Jacobs explored the Chicago food scene, complete with Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, and experienced the food business first-hand. They toured large-scale processing facilities and visited companies like, Calvetti Meats, Tyson Foods Hormel, US Foods, OSI Groups, and more.

“It was very interesting to see where the food that we are so used eating comes from,” said Jacobs. “We got to watch from the plant floor as the meat went through all the steps necessary to become store-ready.”

Institute participants toured the facility where McDonald’s hamburgers are produced, where Hormel processes its hams and bacon, and where US Foods produces their steaks.

“I really valued being able to speak to employees from different parts of the companies we visited,” said Benson. “We spoke to engineers and food scientists about their day-to-day life, and they told us details about the plants, from where the meats come from to what they do with their waste water.”

In addition to food processing, Benson and Jacobs were also exposed to another aspect of a food business – sensory evaluations and creating a new food. Representatives from Archer Daniels Midland Company joined the institute on the final day to explain the steps required

to produce an innovative food creation using the example of a bean chip. Institute participants taste-tested different bean and seasoning powders as part of the demonstration, and the representatives explained how companies first have to go through evaluation steps with a supplier and then with a manufacturer.

The institute is designed to give students an overarching view of food businesses and is open to 75 college students from around the U.S. each year. The Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics encourages students to apply for this and similar opportunities during their undergraduate career. Please contact Katie White for help identifying experiential learning opportunities related to agribusiness and applied economics for you or someone you know.