Illinois Sustainable Food Project: Homegrown, Processed, and Cooked

Illinois Sustainable Food Project: Homegrown, Processed, and Cooked

Apr 9, 2018 | News, News Releases

At the height of the hot Illinois summer, student interns and volunteers from the University of Illinois are busy weeding and watering a colorful variety of vegetable plants at the campus’ Sustainable Student Farm. As the plants grow taller and the vegetables grow larger, it’s not lost on workers that their efforts will help to feed hungry Illini in the coming fall semester and beyond.

Every day during the school year, thousands of students filter through campus dining halls, browsing their choices for a bite to eat. Options such as a fresh salad bar, a great-smelling special, and even an enticing slice of pizza owe thanks to student workers, local farms, and — perhaps most importantly — a food processing plant located right here on campus.

Student volunteers at The Sustainable Student Farm sorting tomatoes.

Local produce and grain like tomatoes and wheat make a quick pit stop at the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition’s (FSHN) Pilot Processing Plant to be turned into the ingredients that become the many dishes students will eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Even more choices of tasty, local foods are coming soon to the University of Illinois’ Dining Services and FSHN’s own Bevier Café thanks to new upgrades in the Pilot Processing Plant.

The Food Science Pilot Processing Plant on the University of Illinois campus

Since 2013, the Plant’s Illinois Sustainable Food Project (ISFP) has bridged the gaps between the Department of Crop Sciences and nearby farms to produce local foods processed right in the heart of campus. From pizza sauce to hot sauce and from flour to pesto, more than 100,000 pounds of fruit, vegetables, and grains have been prepared by ISFP on their way to students’ plates.

And those outputs are only going to continue to increase.

Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Student Sustainability Committee, new upgrades for ISFP will bring even more new foods to student plates — all while continuing campus’ commitment to sustainable dining practices. Here’s what you can expect around Dining with these brand new updates:


Crunchy cereals and tasty snacks

Wheat being prepared for milling

Everyone loves to munch on cereal or salty snacks, but have you ever wondered how your favorite crunchy foods got their shape? It’s all thanks to a machine called an extruder, which puts dough under pressure and squeezes it out into a desired shape. With a new extrusion line coming to the ISFP in Summer 2018, the opportunities will be endless for different types of cereals, snacks, and pastas. The best part? FSHN students and faculty will be on board to help create a recipe that’s as nutritious as it is delicious.

“We do a lot of work with local grain growers in the area and crop researchers on campus,” said Brian Jacobson, Assistant Director of Food and Bioprocessing Pilot Plant Operations. “Plus, it’s no secret that central Illinois grows a lot of corn! (The extruder) is a great way to find outputs for grain products such as rye, wheat and corn.”

Brian Jacobson (left) with members of the ISFP team

“The goal is to develop shelf stable materials with wide distribution in mind,” said Jedi Brown, Food Service Administrator for the Pilot Processing Plant.

The extruder will buddy up with other machinery already in place at the processing plant, such as the flour mill. It’s already turning wheat and corn into flour, and the extruder is the next stop for the doughs made from that flour.

“How we execute decisions on what machinery we need comes down to how we can make the best connections with what we already have to the most feasible projects,” Jacobson said.

By adding just one versatile new piece to the flour products line, the Plant will perhaps double its creative food offerings — and do it at a relatively low cost.

Tasty Tortillas

Flour milling in ISFP facilities

Yummy salsa, fresh guacamole, and savory spices — three factors of Taco Tuesday that are only going to get tastier with the addition of local, homemade tortillas. With another new expansion for flour milling specifically designed to make crispy tortilla chips and warm tortillas, Illini will soon be able to chow down on a local addition to Mexican fare.

“Our plan is to have authentic, whole-grain, stone-ground tortillas that are simple enough to use for a variety of applications,” Brown said.

But perhaps the most exciting part of this expansion is the opportunity to team up with the Department of Crop Sciences to create a colorful snack.

“We’re planning on developing tortilla chips to be used across campus to make a very Illini-themed snack,”  Jacobson said: With Crop Sciences’ research on locally grown, organic varieties of corn, researchers may develop golden (orange) and blue colored corn that would make a very stand-out (and very Illinois) tortilla chip. Paired with local salsa and/or hot sauce that’s already produced at the Pilot Processing Plant, this pairing is a complete package of locally produced products!

Pumpkin Palooza

Illinois pumpkins

Over the last five years, the Pilot Plant has processed several tons of tomatoes annually into a sauce base for pizzas and pastas. In an upgrade to that line of washing, boiling, and straining equipment, the Pilot Plant will be bringing a new menu of sauces, vegetable purees, pastes, and nut butters your way.

“This is another example of where we looked for products that we could make based on the supplies we have and the machines already in place,” Jacobson said.

The biggest draw of this technology expansion may be the capacity to process a food that comes in bright Illini orange: pumpkins.

“With this new equipment, dicing pumpkins will be easier in larger quantities, turning them into a puree in outputs that we were never capable of doing before,” Jacobson said.

Said Brown: “We’ve tried processing pumpkins with components of the tomato line before to see what would happen, but it just wasn’t efficient. The amount of time and effort it took didn’t give us a large enough output. We’re excited for this new addition since it will do the job the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Conveniently enough, the state of Illinois is the world’s largest producer of pumpkins, and new equipment will help campus get more of these homegrown treats into dining halls around campus.

“As a result, you get a highly nutritious raw puree that can be used for a variety of purposes,” Brown said.

A food to be enjoyed year round, pumpkin puree is both tasty and nutritious, with the ability to be substituted in many recipes for butter, oil, and other ingredients used when baking with local flour.

Beyond the plate: Opportunities for Students

Jedi Brown (left) working on pizza recipes with two student interns

While everyone at the ISFP is certainly excited about finding new ways to provide locally sourced, healthy, and balanced products for students eating in University Dining, they’re even more excited about how the new equipment will provide additional educational experiences to the student body — such as internships and hands-on classroom learning.

While the Pilot Processing Plant employs many students year-round, ISFP has allowed a more formal internship program to be formed. Beginning with two students in 2017, the program’s intent is to encourage student experience in their field before they graduate so they can be prepared as they enter the professional world.

“All of these new product upgrades means that our student involvement is only going to keep increasing,” Jacobson said. “From student internships to classroom involvement, we’re always thinking of ways to get more students on board.

“The goal is to set up a selection process for students in the spring semester of their sophomore year in order for them to serve as a paid intern throughout their junior year.”

This, he says, will give students industry experience to connect them to professional contacts for their senior year as they begin looking for the first jobs in their career.

Beyond the multitude of students who will get to eat the tasty finished products in dining halls, additional student interns will get to join the team behind the scenes, having the chance be part of the production process. Outside of internships, a trip to the processing lab might be an exciting day outside the classroom for students in the FSHN program or used in an exciting lesson for events like Explore ACES.



Katie Watson, iSEE Communications Intern


Photos provided by Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition’s Pilot Processing Plant