When it comes to the food industry, many teenagers, especially those living in cities and the suburbs, tend to be totally unaware of the potential career opportunities that await them after they graduate from high school.

“Many students say, ‘I don’t want to be an ag major.’ They misunderstand what the food industry is all about,” said Jennifer Bauer, business development specialist for Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), an innovative program developed by the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan.

“That’s a critical piece of making the leap into attracting students into these majors,” she added.

Founded in 2009, the CAPS Network consists of 69 programs in 125 school districts spread across 19 states and three countries. Five years later in 2014, CAPS introduced the Future of Food program, which was spearheaded by Jennifer Lindsey, vice-president of global marketing at Corbion; Joe Whalen, the course’s instructor; KSU advisors; and Blue Valley faculty members.

“It mirrors what industry is really like,” Mr. Whalen observed. “It’s part science. It’s part business, and it’s understanding society’s relationship with food.”

He said the first semester of the multidisciplinary course immerses students in the entire breadth of the food industry and complements other CAPS courses.

Blue Valley CAPS

In fact, teachers or industry professionals from a separate discipline, such as chemistry or marketing, may teach students how to develop a business plan for a food product while students from other classes, such as engineering, may join the Future of Food class on a trip to a snack facility to see how potato chips are made.

“What makes the ‘Future of Food’ class unique is that instead of being specialized to one area, you’re getting a broad, sweeping overview of an entire industry where you see all of these different specialties that are involved in this particular industry,” Mr. Whalen said.

“The goal of the first semester class is to provide this broad overview of all of these different specialties that go into food and the food industry, and food in its relationship to society,” he added. “It teaches you that no matter what area you’re interested in, there is a career for you in the food industry.”

Mr. Bauer noted a class may include a presentation from a mechanical engineer from Burns & McDonnell, a Blue Valley CAPS partner, to describe the challenges around developing a scoop tortilla chip or how to evenly coat an ice cream bar with nuts or nougats.

“Bringing in those industry professionals who can talk about those processes is so enlightening,” Ms. Bauer said. “It teaches them about an engineering problem. Someone has had to make that work, and that can be you, and that can be fun.”

Alicia Poole, cofounder of Balance the Superfood Shot, Mission, Kan., and former marketing manager of Red Bull and other startup initiatives, speaks to students about her career as an entrepreneur involved with several startup food and beverage businesses.

“So often, you don’t get introduced to careers until after high school,” Ms. Poole said. “Of course, that’s changing now with the CAPS program.”

Introducing the next generation to the food industry, she added, allows them to pinpoint their true career interests before making a commitment to a college.

[Related listening: Why KSU, baking industry face similar recruitment challenges]

It’s the dearth of talent rising into the food industry that drove Ms. Lindsey to become involved with CAPS and the development of the Future of Food program.

“You talk to average college kids and say, ‘Hey, are you going to go into baking science?’ They are then going to look at you and say, ‘What are you talking about? There is such a thing?’ ” she observed.

Part of the goal for the Future of Food course, she said, involves allowing the industry to reach out to students in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

“Being a sponsor could involve simply showing up and working with the kids for a day,” Ms. Lindsey said. “Tell them about the baking industry so awareness is there because students are already interested in engineering. They can work on projects that are applicable to the baking industry.”

In addition to curriculum development, Ms. Lindsey works directly with students on creating a food product, how to prototype it and what’s needed to take it to market. Ms. Bauer suggested that this is an integral segment of a semester-long project.

“The culminating activity for all students is pitching a novel food product,” she explained. “The process starts at the beginning of the semester when they start market research to identify gaps. Over the course of the semester, they refine their product idea, engage with industry experts, create prototypes in the test kitchen, learn how to write a business plan and ultimately pitch the product ‘Shark Tank’-style.”

A panel of judges, including professionals like Ms. Poole and Ms. Lindsey, then judge the new products, which are developed in the program’s test kitchen.

Blue Valley CAPS

Mr. Whalen recalled how Kirsty Gordon, a former student, developed a gummy candy called “Fight Bites” that are shaped like boxing gloves and feature antioxidants to fight back inflammation and disease. Her team worked with engineering class students to develop a mould for producing the candy, evaluated which ones worked the best and suggested design changes to make them commercially feasible. 

Ms. Gordon, however, best remembers the class for what Mr. Whalen taught. With family roots in farming, she recalled how her grandmother taught her everything about baking — from cakes and cookies to yeast-raised bread.

“I had the home baking side of food, but Mr. Whalen came in with the molecular biology side and added that layer of science that boosted my knowledge going into college courses,” said Ms. Gordon, a KSU graduate and now a technical miller with Bay State Milling. “My friends at college would say, ‘How do you know about all of this already?’ I learned a lot about it from CAPS.”

For the final project, she also gained valuable personal skills, especially from a business and entrepreneurial perspective.

“Giving the big presentation made so many things easier in college,” said Ms. Gordon, adding that the exploration into the global food industry added “a much deeper level to the course.”

In the second semester, the Future of Food dedicates students’ time to a single project or real-life work experiences from local businesses. Mr. Whalen works closely with each student to develop the semester plan, which is then mostly driven by student initiative.

Some students worked for CAPS partners such as Balls Foods, which owns Tippin’s Pies and several grocery stores in the Kansas City area.

[Related reading: Baking industry study shows entry-level workers have shot at management]

Mr. Whalen said the two-semester course encourages students to pursue other self-guided interests.

“The first semester class focuses on all of these areas of the food industry, then allows students to pick out one that they’re especially interested in,” he said.

Mr. Whalen pointed out that the Future of Food program also reaches high schoolers who might not have a hard-core STEM mentality. When he establishes a scientific link to food, however, they make the connection.

“So many students come to my class saying, ‘I’m not a science person.’ Then they get into our program, and they totally understand the science,” he explained.

“Traditional science is taught in isolation, not in the context of something,” he added. “An emulsifier in a chemistry class is just an emulsifier, but when students see how it works in foods, they ‘get it.’ Because you’re working with something as understandable as food, it really drives the point home and that helps students realize that they are science people. It’s just that the traditional mode of teaching science hasn’t worked.”

Ms. Lindsey said CAPS might also be filling the gap caused by industry institutions that have dropped their focus on basic training that was chockful of STEM and baking fundamentals. While many associations have stepped up with other programs, none are focusing on the next generation of students who have yet to enter the workforce.

“That’s no longer there, and I don’t believe anybody has stepped in to replace that,” she said.

Currently, about one-third of Americans have a four-year degree, and a smaller percentage of those students graduate in a STEM-related field. As a result, when it comes to food science, it’s easy to see how difficult it is for companies to recruit new blood into the industry.

“It’s not any great rocket science way of thinking to understand we’re all competing for the same talent, and then, nobody knows we exist,” Ms. Lindsey said.

Blue Valley CAPS

Ms. Lindsey said her personal goal from participating in CAPS is to recruit one student per year to a food science or similar career. She recalled how she entered college as a pre-med student specializing in biochemistry, then after a change of heart about becoming a physician, switched to the food industry on the advice of the dean of the university’s agriculture school.

“If you look at the degree you’re pursuing, you’re only one semester short of a food science degree,” the dean told her. “There are great opportunities in the industry. You’ll earn a wonderful living.”

It’s a piece of advice she’ll never forget, although it would have been better if she had received it before going to college. And that’s what the CAPS program provides.

“We can’t do things the way we’ve always done them,” Ms. Lindsey said. “I think we rely on the universities just to ‘crank out’ students, and the universities are having a hard time recruiting them.

We have to go upstream to the high school level,” she continued. “It needs to be grassroots. There is a big network out there with this CAPS program that we could better leverage.”

She hopes the CAPS Network, and specifically the Future of Food program, continues to expand nationally, and she has a challenge for those in the food industry.

“If you have a baking science background, are you reaching out to your local high schools? Are you talking to kids about these professions and career opportunities?” Ms. Lindsey asked. “What they don’t know is definitely a detriment to our industry.”

By branching out beyond STEM, she explained, CAPS and the Future of Food are revealing one of the best-kept secrets to a whole generation pursuing a career.

This article is an excerpt from the November 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature, click here.