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PRFC's Visit to UMaine's Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant

One of the lessor known elements of the “Food Center” strategy that PRFC is pioneering is the ability to provide safe, certified facilities for food preparation. For the last 3 years we’ve been accumulating the necessary equipment and for the last few months we’ve been working hard getting the space ready for use. Now that we’re nearly done it’s probably a good time to start getting the word out about what it is all about.

For those who haven’t been through PRFC’s building lately, in the center is a 1000 square foot area containing sinks, tables, and equipment for handling, processing, and cooking large amounts of food at one time. A wide range of activities are possible, such as repacking large bulk food into family sized portions, cleaning and bagging fresh produce from a farmer’s fields, conducting food education, producing items for retail sale, and the ability to preserve food for long periods of time. PRFC, food cupboards, for profit food businesses, farms, and others can all make use of this space as needed.

Something we’re very interested in is partnerships where we can enhance PRFC’s programming with someone else’s. When we learned that UMaine has dedicated facilities and staff to help Mainers with producing innovative and safe food products, we saw a natural fit with PRFC. In order to find out more specifically what we can do together we traveled to Orono for a tour of UMaine’s food lab to see what they do first hand.

What we learned is their food lab exists to identify ways to transform Maine’s abundant raw food resources into viable, safe food products for the betterment of Maine. The most interesting part of the tour centered around cool pieces of (expensive) equipment that can do such things as flash freeze, dry freeze, “cold” steaming, mechanically separate out inedible stuff, and otherwise impressive feats of food engineering. We have absolutely no idea how any one of the machines we saw may benefit PRFC’s activities, but we are sure we’ll find out!

A less physically impressive, but even more important, part of the tour was the food testing lab. This is where UMaine uses its scientific knowledge and equipment to test if a food product meets various safety standards. If you want to make sure you’re not trying to pass botulism jam onto your friends and family, this is where you go. The UMaine staff not only has the ability to scientifically document what’s wrong with a food sample, but also what to do to correct for the identified problems. If there’s something they can’t test for, they know who to send it to and can work with those results to help with corrections.

Lastly, we toured their test kitchen where students learn how to correctly and safely operate in a kitchen environment. Some of the classes they run are open to the public. We have no doubts that such trainings will be useful to many in our area.

A few days after our wonderful tour the head of UMaine’s food facilities came to PRFC to see our space and how it’s being set up. Coming along for the tour was a professional chef who has direct experience with some of the services our facilities are designed to handle. We had good conversations about the sorts of activities we’re planning on, the equipment we might need, and other useful exchanges of knowledge.

We learned a lot from our visits and look forward to working with UMaine on our shared goals of improving the lives of those around us through good, healthy, and safe food.

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