Food: it’s not just cooking - it’s science

A graduate starting salary of around £24,000, opportunities for international travel, continuing professional development and hundreds of vacancies on offer – the chilled food sector has a lot to offer.

Scientists and engineers working in the chilled foods industry

However, careers in the industry are often perceived as focusing on cooking, or being a chef, meaning the STEM principles that underpin everything we eat are often ignored. So, when students are wondering where to take their passion for science they’ll think of medicine or forensics. Food and the food sector in its widest sense, is often not on their menu of career options.

UK businesses continue to warn about a growing skills shortage, as they struggle to recruit qualified workers with STEM skills. This skills shortage is equally concerning to the food industry and the chilled food sector, which relies on a pipeline of STEM skills.

Myths and misconceptions

In order to address the STEM skills gap, a priority is to encourage students to have an understanding of science from an early age, while ensuring the school curriculum addresses STEM skills to prepare them for a continually evolving and changing workplace.

The myths and misconceptions around the opportunities open to school-leavers can be challenged by introducing young people to role models, STEM Ambassadors, from the food industry, who can widen their understanding of the possible career paths.

Which is where Chilled Education (CEd) comes in. Established by the Chilled Food Association in 2011, it aims to “get more food into science teaching and more science into food teaching”.

By working with teachers, CEd has developed free lesson plans for Key Stages 1-4 on subjects ranging from DNA to modelling microbial growth. They all use food as a cost-effective, readily available and relatable classroom resource, creating clear links between scientific principles and food science and technology.

The lesson plans are downloadable from the CEd website chillededucation.org. Alongside the plans are details of other resources, such as the innovative MicroTrumps game, featuring 20 food-related microorganisms, where players trump each other on the characteristics of their microorganism.

By providing these resources, CEd is inspiring and enabling science teachers to get more food into their teaching which will, hopefully, set their students on the road to potential careers in the chilled food sector.

Insider insights

But what are those careers? Again, CEd has the information, including insider insights from people working in the industry – from technical and laboratory managers to environmental specialists. The broad and diverse interviews reveal the variety of work available and are reflected in the case studies of recent graduates.

As Tessa Herbert, technical graduate at convenience food producer Greencore explains: “It’s great to be nurtured by colleagues who are happy to share their experience. We attend meetings, receive training and are really chucked in at the deep end – but I could not be more grateful! I’m now discovering, and being part of, a fascinating industry.”

There’s no better way of learning about an industry than by hearing experiences. So, CEd brings industry into schools and colleges. A visit to UTC Plymouth by technical colleagues from Samworth Brothers’ who are ‘Chilled STEM Ambassadors’ created a real buzz. Bruce Robinson, UTC’s head of chemistry says: “A huge thank you for the inspiring guidance. You have definitely inspired our girls with your ideas. It has put A level Biology right in the spotlight, which is brilliant.

“It has buoyed up their desire to make a career in science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Helping young people see future employment opportunities in the chilled food sector will help tackle a growing STEM skills shortage and empower the next generation. Employees and businesses, as STEM Ambassadors, can provide the link and real-world connection in the value of a career in chilled food, while also enabling staff to develop professionally and engage meaningfully with young people, teachers and schools.

Full details and lots more information can be found on chillededucation.org, including real career paths, and sample job descriptions to give students the awareness they need to help get them into chilled food science careers.

Dr Ajay Sharman is STEM Learning regional lead

Ms Gill Harrison is communications consultant for the Chilled Food Association and Chilled Education

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