Alberta Post-Secondary Institutions Prepare Students for Economic Diversification

Foodpreneur might not be an entry in the Oxford Dictionary just yet, but an incubator program at Portage College could have a hand in changing that. The college’s Food Sciences Centre features four new food science lab — the Kettle Line Lab, the Meat Processing Lab, the Bakery Lab, and the Packaging Lab. The labs are equipped with state-of-the art equipment, including grills, ranges, smokers, and mixers.

“It was a $10 million project that took place in phases over 10 years,” says campus manager Beverly Lockett. “Everything is quite industrial.”

One catering business making use of the foodpreneur-focused incubator is A Cut Above. The father and son business rents kitchen space at Portage College and hosts catered events in the dining room. Recently, A Cut Above entered into a collaboration with the college, working with the school’s culinary students and instructors to provide catered breakfast and lunch for students writing exams.

“It is collaborations like this that portray successes of our program,” Lockett says.

A local meat processor also turned to Portage College Food Sciences centre when he outgrew the community kitchens he was renting. He is now using the Meat Processing, Kettle Line and Packaging labs to prepare his products, with a vision of eventually hiring students to help process and sell his wares in the school’s retail space.

“The dream behind our retail store is to provide an outlet for small producers to sell their products,” says Lockett. “Often we are finding that foodpreneurs do not have access to their buyers or do not have a channel to distribute their product. The vision of our retail space is to provide that opportunity for producers.”

Portage College is just one of three post-secondary institutions in the Northeast Alberta Information Hub (Alberta HUB) region taking a holistic approach to applied education and research, and creating graduates that will have expertise in ever-evolving industries, such as food science and renewable energy.

Alberta HUB is the regional economic organization supporting an area in northeast Alberta that borders Saskatchewan and stretches more than 300 kilometres from Lac La Biche County in the north to the County of Vermilion River in the south.

University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills – named after one of Saddle Lake Cree Nation’s founders, Chief Blue Quill (sîpihtakanep) – has been providing post-secondary opportunities locally since the mid-70s. In 1990 the university began to develop and deliver their own highly focused degree and certificate programs, and continue to add to its diverse educational offerings.

“We have just launched a hydroponic ‘mîciwin emaskihkîwakihtek food is medicine’ growing project in partnership with local schools and clubs to inspire whole fresh foods and gardening,” says Sherri Chisan, acting president and director of programs with University Blue Quills.

In collaboration with institutions like the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, NorQuest College, PowerUp Lac La Biche, and St. Paul Community Futures, Blue Quills offers its students and graduates unparalleled access to an ever-expanding network of potential employers, research partners, and funding opportunities. “Many have had transformational experiences and are applying knowledge within their communities,” says Chisan.

She also noted that perhaps the most important work the university is doing is around reconciliation. Blue Quills has been working with industry, government, and not-for-profit agencies for several years, promoting greater understanding and healthy relationships, which ultimately improves partnership opportunities. Meanwhile, Lakeland College’s Renewable Energy and Conservation program is designed for students looking to develop an understanding of climate change; energy security and independence; conservation; and sustainable building construction practices.

With the Alberta government’s plan of ensuring 30 per cent of electricity in the province is generated by renewable energy by 2030, the program will create graduates that can apply what they learn at planning and development departments with different municipal or provincial government bodies across the province. “The choices are so diverse, it’s almost mind-boggling,” says Rob Baron, instructor at Lakeland College. Collectively, these and other post-secondary institutions in the province continue to provide graduates with the experience they’ll need to thrive in a diversifying economy. As Bob Bezpalko, executive director of Alberta HUB, puts it: “They’re meeting the needs of businesses and industry, not only for today, but into the future. The opportunities are endless in the Alberta HUB region.”