If you ask Dr Angela Sheehan of University College Cork’s (UCC) Food Industry Training Unit about their diploma programme in speciality food production, which is now celebrating its 15th year, be prepared for a lengthy chat. From the diverse range of students the course has attracted over the years, to the way they can use learning outcomes to launch their food businesses, the programme has now certified nearly 250 students and led to a slew of successful food businesses.
“[The programme] provides education in all relevant aspects of management, marketing, science, technology, food safety, nutrition, labelling, packaging, the environment and sustainable food production,” she explains. “The students also have the opportunity to connect with experts, both internal and external to UCC.”
For the first time ever, in a twist for their 15-year milestone, the 2020 session will commence remotely. While these are strange times, Angela believes what drives the success of the programme will still be amply provided – small-sized group learning combined with the right mix of theoretical and practical approaches to food and business development.
“Interestingly, the online and blended learning delivery is proving to be very attractive to a wider pool of potential participants, who may not be able to attend full-time due to geographical location or other commitments,” she says.
Accessible food education
An important aspect of this course has always been its accessibility. With significant funding and minimal eligibility requirements, doors are opened to students who otherwise may not have access to the training and mentoring needed to get a food business off the ground.
“Establishing a food business can be an expensive undertaking,” Angela says.
“For the past nine years, funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has represented 64% of the fee for each student and without this financial support, I know that many students could not have participated.”
The team at UCC’s Food Industry Training Unit have had a hand in the development of some familiar food businesses, including Bo Rua Farmhouse Cheese, Ayle Farm Products, Wildberry Bakery, The Cultured Couple, Richmount Cordial Company and Chicco Foods.
“The best memories [we have] probably relate to the students who overcame significant challenges in order to complete the programme,” Angela reminisces. “And it is always wonderful to hear about new businesses receiving awards such as Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards and the Listowel Best Emerging Artisan Food awards for their products.”
The next intake of students will be in October 2020 and applications are currently being received. See www.ucc.ie/en/fitu CL
May Kong, SensAsian Food (Class of 2019-20)
“I’m from Hong Kong originally. I met my husband in Asia and we moved to Ireland. In Asia, food culture is different – you eat, you talk, you communicate. I always wanted to do something related to food – I spent a long time thinking about it and finally decided to do it. The UCC food programme is like an all-round package in relation to science, policy, the future of food and microbiology. It’s just a great course – it covers everything and brings people together. The professors have so much experience and knowledge. The support is so important.”
May now runs an Asian food shop in Ballincollig and has a weekly stall (each Thursday) at the Mahon Point Farmers Market.
Seoirse Neilan, Viva Mexico Online (Class of 2018-19)
“My wife Patricia is from Mexico. She’s been living in Ireland since 2001. She was always looking for Mexican ingredients online for herself. She found out about Blanco Nino [tortillas] in Clonmel, so she started buying from them. There are a lot of Mexican people in the Cork city area so we started collecting the tortillas and would drop them down to Cork city. An idea developed from there, and then I found out about the course. I’ve been blind for 24 years and my wife worked in IT – we thought we would start an e-commerce shop.
“The course helped a lot in the development of our business, especially for marketing. We got a lot of help and information about what customers are looking for and we knew the website would really need to look professional. We’re sourcing products like chilis, sauces and tomatillos, but we’re also looking into producing and manufacturing Mexican products.”
Michelle McGrath, Animal Health Ireland (Class of 2019-20)
“I work with Animal Health Ireland in their CellCheck (the national mastitis control programme) and CalfCare areas. I just finished the course in June. I [originally] studied agricultural science before studying veterinary. I found this course a good link between these [subjects], as farmers are such important food producers and both veterinary and agriculture have a vital role to play in sustainable food production. [My family] has a dairy farm here in east Cork and someday, down the line, I’d be interested in producing the milk here on the farm as a micro dairy. We have a strong tradition of maintaining cow families and breeding – our cows are extremely well looked after. I really enjoyed the course. It was well organised and had a good variety of subjects. Biochemistry, microbiology and even the history of food were all really interesting. All of the lecturers were helpful and they help build your confidence.”