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Agri-food incubator seeks to disrupt the food industry

One group participating in Accelerate Guelph hopes to create a low-cost fruit and vegetable snack to be included in school lunches that will also address farm waste
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Leah Blechschmitdt, Amberley Ruetz and Karthika Sriskantharajah are members of a group of four developing a product to ensure school children get the nutrition they need as part of Accelerator Guelph at University of Guelph. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday

A group of University of Guelph grad students hope to bring to market a nutritious and cost-effective product for school lunch programs that also addresses a common problem farmers face when some of their fruits and vegetables may not be able to come to market.

Accelerator Guelph is a newly-announced incubator intended to help U of G researchers to bring their agri-food ideas to market and was announced during an agri-food innovation showcase held Friday at Cutten Fields.

Dana McCauley, associate director of New Venture Creation for University of Guelph, said Accelerator Guelph is intended to help U of G researchers to bring their agri-food ideas to market.

Through the program’s workshops and mentoring opportunities, researchers are assisted in exploring the market feasibility of their idea with hopes of eventually bringing it to market. 

Researchers develop great ideas, said McCauley, but they aren’t always the best entrepreneurs.

“They are not by disposition risk takers, so it really helps to bring those qualities to the forefront if they are around people who can spur them on,” said McCauley.

One group, consisting of five grad students at Arrell Food Institute, is participating in the program with hopes of creating a product that will eventually be offered to schools.

“We are developing what will likely be a fruit and vegetable puree that will be used in school nutrition programs, but that is also made from off-grade fruits and vegetables to produce another revenue stream for farmers,” said team member Leah Blechschmitdt. 

The idea was sparked from fellow team member Amberley Ruetz who was working with Ontario’s Student Nutrition Program.

“In Ontario, schools are only funded about 15 cents per healthy snack. Imagine. What can you serve kids for 15 cents?” said Ruetz.

The group identified another problem, that many fruits and vegetables are wasted when they are the wrong size or not attractive enough to come to market.

“One of the commons problems are apples. You get apples that aren’t big enough to go to market, but they can be useful in processing,” said Blechschmitdt.

By processing and preserving off-grade fruits and vegetables when they are in season, the group hopes they can keep costs down, while creating another revenue stream for farmers.

One challenge school nutrition programs can face, said Ruetz, is a spike in prices of some fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter months, when they are not in season.

“Sometimes those produce prices double or triple and it is really hard for schools to serve something healthy and nutritious on their limited budget,” said Ruetz.

The group is exploring the possibility of further fortifying the puree with vegetable proteins, said team member Karthika Sriskantharajah.

McCauley said if the group’s idea is successful, it could disrupt the entire industry.

“Kid food has generally always been chicken fingers and Mac and cheese. I think seeing that disrupted would be fantastic,” she said.

The group is one of six teams participating in the first instalment of Accelerator Guelph. Others groups are exploring ideas like a test kit to determine the origin of meat samples or an innovative pump for aquaculture farming 

McCauley said the Accelerate Guelph program’s weekly workshops and one-on-one mentoring from industry subject matter experts will help researchers to think more like entrepreneurs as they go through the feasibility, growth and development processes.

“Often researchers talk about the process of how they did their research without ever really getting into the why,” said McCauley.