By Jim Langcuster, Alabama Cooperative Extension System

The Chilton Food Innovation Center, a fully equipped industrial kitchen in Clanton, is helping farmers and other aspiring entrepreneurs turn fruits and vegetables into a variety of products for grocers’ shelves.

And it is being done with revitalized kitchen equipment from Auburn University’s Foy Hall, formerly Foy Student Union.

“We were called by Property Surplus,” said Jean Weese, food scientist with Auburn and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “They were taking all the equipment out of Foy Union. They asked us if we had a need for it. It was right at a time we were planning this facility, so it worked perfectly.”

The equipment is providing new life for produce in Clanton.

For years, local leaders and citizens alike 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.

Board member 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,” he said.

The center, located at 13 First Ave., is operated by the Chilton County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which provides technical assistance with the food processing.

Any grower with an acidified food trying to move a product into retail sales is eligible to use the center at a rate of $40 per hour. All that is required is to fill out an application, which is subject to approval by the Innovation Center’s board of directors.

“They bring their labor, their ingredients, their packaging and will process in our kitchen, because they have to process in a commercial kitchen that is already inspected by the health department,” said Christy Mendoza, center director.

Until the opening of this facility in late 2011, the biggest challenge for growers had 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.

The growers and other local residents 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,” said 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, worked with Weese to acquire the industrial kitchen equipment from Auburn. West and Pitts were able to secure the use of a former school cafeteria from the local board of education.

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 the repair and purchase of more equipment and supplies.

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,” Pitts said. “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.”

More information about the Chilton Food Innovation Center is available by calling the Chilton County Extension office at (205) 280-6268.