Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

From School Food to Food Business:

Written by Karen Hunley

Food Science Researcher Has a Lot on Her Plate

Dr. Jean Weese says she never thought she would have three college degrees and a plethora of highly regarded research and outreach experience under her belt. In fact, as a teenager, she might have laughed if someone said she would someday have a Ph.D. in food science.

Growing up on a Kentucky farm, Weese says she had always been interested in food, but she was also from a low-literacy community, and neither of her parents graduated from high school. She says she didn’t think college was an option, but her father valued education a great deal and was adamant that she reach her full potential.

“I knew about food. Everything we ate, we grew, and we learned about slaughtering,” Weese says. “It was all very interesting to me even at that time, not realizing that it would be my career.”

Jean WeeseHowever, one degree led to another, her interest in food science grew, and today she reflects on a 26-year career as a food scientist and a professor in the Auburn University Department of Poultry Science. She has researched a variety of food safety issues in the food processing and service industries and taught food science courses at Auburn that run the gamut–everything from food chemistry to plant sanitation.

She has also been a food safety specialist for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for 20 years. These days, Extension programs are where Weese devotes most of her time. She spends most of her time helping aspiring entrepreneurs navigate food business regulations and providing the necessary testing services for their products.

For instance, someone might call her and announce he has the “next great chocolate chip cookie recipe.” She discusses any issues he’s having and lets him know the appropriate next steps to get his cookies ready to sell. Weese and her Extension partners are also approved instructors for the Better Process Control School, which provides assistance to manufacturers of low-acid and acidified foods. Such manufacturers must operate with a certified supervisor on the premises when processing, and the Better Process Control School offers the training, which fulfills FDA and USDA Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) requirements.

Farmers also seek out Weese for assistance with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). In order to sell fresh produce to large grocery stories, they must pass this USDA inspection program, and Weese trains farmers and helps them prepare for the GAP inspection.

Extension is also recognized as the state’s most reliable source for training school food service personnel when the government hands down new child nutrition guidelines. In 2010, the Obama administration released new school lunch “guidance,” recommending that each state begin incorporating fresher, healthier foods into its school lunch programs.

Sounds great, Weese said, but preparing only fresh foods without that “processed” stigma is not easy when you are talking about serving 1,000 children in an hour.

“For the food service provider, it is time intensive for them to make things from scratch,” she said.

Through a contract with the Department of Education, Weese and the nine regional Extension agents she oversees spent the summer of 2011 traveling to 14 locations throughout the state, teaching child nutrition program supervisors how to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans–essentially, more fiber–to children’s diets. The training also included inviting Master Gardeners to show principals and other key personnel how to start gardens at their schools.

For the last five years, Weese has also been involved in an Alabama literacy program in collaboration with Save the Children, an international organization focused on helping underprivileged children improve their reading skills. The program saw a dire need to reach out to certain areas of Alabama and elicited help from Auburn University to employ literacy teachers.

Since there was a child nutrition component to the project–offering healthy snacks to children during after-school reading sessions–Weese got involved and ended up managing the program and the 20 literacy teachers over the five-year contract, which ended in 2013.

“The idea was that if we could teach the children to read, they would have much better lives,” she said.

Weese also oversees ServSafe training in Alabama. At least one representative from every food service establishment in the state must complete the program, offered by the National Restaurant Association. She coordinates regional agents, who then travel to mom-and-pop restaurants and school lunch programs in every corner of the state to deliver the training.

All the work that Weese does with Extension doesn’t earn the accolades from the university that publishing stacks of research journal articles might–you don’t get promotions out of it–but that’s OK, she says. She enjoys being so involved in promoting safety and knowledge in the state’s food industry.

Most of all, Weese says she likes helping farmers and small business owners get up and running. She assisted Patricia “Sister” Schubert in taking her now-famous homemade rolls from their origin–Schubert’s grandmother’s kitchen–to grocery store freezer aisles everywhere. She also was involved in building the Wickles company with its unique variety of pickles and other “wicked” jarred products.

“I believe in the food industry, and I enjoy working in all facets of it,” Weese says.

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