Merced College answering needs of fast-growing food/nutrition industry with fast-track certificates beginning Fall 2020

The food industry is growing at a rapid rate, but Merced College’s Foods and Nutrition program is already prepared to train people who want those careers.

A 2019 study by the Central Valley/Mother Lode Center of Excellence found this region had a shortage of 4,150 trained workers in nutrition and the culinary arts. Schools, hospitals, restaurants and large-scale corporations need qualified dietitians, nutritionists, food service experts, chefs, cooks and others trained in safely handling food.

You can get that training at Merced College in the Foods and Nutrition Program.

“I have employers telling me all the time how they need trained people,” said Michelle Pecchenino, Program Coordinator and Registered Dietitian, for the past 15 years.

“They say they love working with the students we produce here. They contact me when they’re ready to hire. It’s a really exciting time here.”

The success stories are diverse. Recent program graduates Evan Fimbrez and Julia Johnson both earned certificates and degrees at the College that have given them either quick access to a great job in Fimbrez’s case, or gave a strong start to their education towards a career in Johnson’s case.

Because he had experience in his high school culinary arts program, Fimbrez got a job at a local nursing facility after he graduated from Golden Valley High School. He worked full-time while earning his Certified Dietary Manager certificate at Merced College in late 2018, a move he calls “the first and right choice.”

Once he had his CDM certificate, he had the contacts and training to immediately land a job last January as Director of Foods and Nutrition Serves at Anberry Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Atwater.

“It is so important to network and make contacts in the field,” Fimbrez said. “The field experience you get [at Merced College] is an excellent opportunity to do that.”

Fimbrez said the hands-on approach at the College encourages teamwork.

“Every day I work with my residents, their families and colleagues to complete a goal,” he said. “It is a team atmosphere and my time at Merced College prepared me for that. All the team projects you do there pay off.”

Johnson has used her training as a springboard to an eventual career as a pastry chef. She began baking at her grandmother’s knee and continued throughout her school years.

“I baked for whomever I could, just to get experience,” she said.

She earned an AA in Nutrition at the College in 2018. She also has certificates as a Dietary Supervisor and a ServSafe Certification for food handling. Some of those units transferred to her new school—the Culinary Institute of America near Napa Valley.

The Hilmar High School graduate is thankful she earned those certificates at Merced College. With the training completed, now she focuses on cooking. She has two more semesters to go at the CIA after she completes her externship at Cake Works Bakery in Honolulu, Hawaii.

At Merced College, Johnson said she learned about food allergies and now wants to open a local bakery that caters to people with food allergies.

“I think the Central Valley needs more places that are allergy friendly,” Johnson said. “I would like to bring those options—wheat-free, sugar-free, nut-free—but still make great treats that don’t sacrifice taste.”

Anyone with Johnson or Fimbrez’s interest, starting in Fall 2020, can take advantage of fast-track programs for the ServSafe Manager Certificate that nurtures proficiency in food safety and sanitation; Dietetic Service Supervisor/Certified Dietary Manager (CDM) and a Certificate of Achievement, which is seven elective courses that offer more training.

The ServSafe Certificate is nationally recognized. Back in November 2019, Merced College became a CDM training site sanctioned by the Association of Nutrition and Food Professionals.

New students can complete certificates in two semesters. Anyone can join the program and stay on track for two semesters regardless of when they begin.

Pecchenino says part of the secret to the program’s success is having a staff with extensive experience in the field. One of three part-time instructors is a retired chef from Columbia Community College. Another is a retired high school culinary teacher.

“We have so much enthusiasm [among our staff],” Pecchenino said. “It has allowed me to expand what I do, like developing a Culture and Cuisine course. We’ll start offering that in Spring 2021. ... It’s really what the food industry in California is all about. Any population needs to be attentive to the surrounding cultures.

“In this program, we still have so much more to come.”