Chilton Food Innovation Center receives grant

Published 3:26 pm Thursday, December 6, 2012

Produce in Chilton County will have a ripe future due to a $72,603 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Gov. Robert Bentley announced Wednesday the Chilton Food Innovation Center in Clanton will use the funding from the ARC to improve its operation to take advantage of quality, locally grown fruit and vegetables that may be too ripe or too small for retail grocers.

Director of the Chilton Food Innovation Center Christy Mendoza said the main focus of the center is to help the local farmers due to Chilton County being a large agricultural community.

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

Although the center does not allow individual use of the facility, it is open to businesses interested in using their local excess produce or vegetables for products like jams, salsas, dessert toppings or pickles.

“Sometimes a farmer will have produce or vegetables that might be small in size or have a different color but have quality fruit or vegetables inside,” Mendoza said. “Our facility allows the farmers with a business to come and use those excess fruits they weren’t able to sell into a valued product.”

Mendoza said the money from the grant will help in purchasing equipment for the center including a conveyor belt with a depositor line.

When the center opened, a surplus of kitchen equipment was provided by Auburn University with the kitchen and produce subjected to health inspections to ensure operation cleanliness.

Mendoza said a survey conducted showed area farmers estimated about 30 percent of their crops were not suitable for retail markets, but were still good quality. The center hopes to work with farmers and merchants throughout central Alabama to utilize the unsuitable crops in boosting more local foods.

“Our goal is to help the farmers use as much of their fruits and vegetables as possible,” Mendoza said. “We can do acidified foods, dried foods, pickles, any kind of jellies, chutney and chow chow. Those wanting to use our facility buy their own ingredients and we provide them with the equipment.”

Mendoza said one minor challenge was when the facility first opened in 2011 it was at the end of the summer when most of the farmers crops were finished.