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Carmen - Volunteer

The more you improve the lives of others, the more rewarding and successful your life will be. This is a belief I have held close in my life both personally and professionally

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to live and work in various places throughout the world, including North America, Latin America, and New Zealand, making an impact through my contributions to improving the food we eat. While I’ve learned and grown through each of these experiences, I had a strong desire to share my passion for food science and helping those in need outside of the R&D department where I currently spend my days.

This desire is what initially drew me to Feeding Tomorrow, the Foundation of IFT, and its Volunteer Globally program, which offers in-country and virtual volunteer opportunities for science of food professionals interested in serving those with the greatest need. Volunteer Globally connected me with an opportunity through ACDI/VOCA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Misaktsieli region in the country Georgia, and what an amazing experience it turned out to be.

The application process was simple and within a few months, I was packing my bags for a 12-day excursion to Georgia, which is located at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia. I was tasked with providing technical and marketing assistance to Caucasus Organic Fruits Ltd., a two-year-old company that buys fresh fruits from farmers and cooperative members and produces about 50 tons of dried apples, melon, kiwi, and persimmons annually. The company was looking to penetrate the domestic market via supermarkets offering 100 gram packages of apple chips, dried apple rings, dried kiwi, and dried persimmon. Additionally, they were seeking opportunities to export in bulk starting in Germany and later expanding into other countries in the European Union.

During my time there, I assessed and prioritized the challenges of preserving the sensory attributes of the dried fruits, recommending the appropriate retail packaging and labeling. This was particularly important to prevent humidity issues from impacting the company’s ability to deliver food that was safe to eat. I also began formulating the company’s marketing strategy, providing recommendations on specific steps that should be taken to help the company more effectively penetrate the European market and become more competitive. In addition, the company currently uses uniform costs for all products, so I developed a detailed cost analysis (variable and fixed) to provide a better understanding of the financial feasibility for each product. I also had the opportunity to visit two additional companies and an independent entrepreneur to learn about their products and business model and offer recommendations to help enable business success.

While I was prepared to work hard and share my knowledge with these companies during my assignment, I couldn’t possibly have prepared myself for the immense rewards that came my way. It was eye opening to travel to farms, processing plants, and other facilities. The people I worked with were smart and knowledgeable, but they are working with equipment and processes that are not as sophisticated as in more developed countries which is challenging.

In addition, it was an amazing opportunity to learn about a culture I was not previously familiar with. I found the people in Georgia to be very resourceful. They were also incredibly welcoming, and much more relaxed than I might have expected. Several invited me into their homes for a meal and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were passionate about what they do, open to hearing different perspectives, and weren’t afraid to politely tell you what they thought and why. It was truly enjoyable getting to experience the culture on both a personal and professional level, and I have continued to maintain contact and provide assistance, as needed, long after my visit to Georgia came to an end.

After returning home and reflecting on the experience, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and filled with hope.  As a member of the global science of food community, we have significant challenges ahead if we are going to feed the world’s growing population. It will take new technologies, continuous improvements, hard work, and growth, but if we work together, we can collectively develop solutions and make an impact.

Participating in a Volunteer Globally opportunity like this one is an excellent way to broaden your perspective, see the world through a different lens, learn to appreciate what you have, experience tolerance, and grow as an individual. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it to be one of the most memorable and valuable experiences that your IFT membership provides.

I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and make an impact on the science of food in a new and different way through the Volunteer Globally program. Learn more and check out available opportunities on the Volunteer Globally web page.

Dr. Carmen C. Fernandez-McEwen, IFT Member and Volunteer Globally Program Participant

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