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Students Get Food Down to a Science at NMSU's Agricultural College

Michael Hernandez


Despite its name, NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, or ACES college, doesn’t just focus on crops and livestock. Take the student-run ACES Foods manufacturing company as an example. Instructor Whitney Biel teaches Food Science & Technology students how to make their own creamy creations in the laboratory.

“We are actually filling an order for a customer a restaurant in Las Cruces, Lorenzo’s. He ordered a caramel macchiato and a chocolate hazelnut gelato so we’re basically learning how to make and package our gelato. We’re also making some chocolate chip cookies to sell in the café and we’re also packaging some dog treats for another local customer,” Biel said.

Along with teaching, Biel manages the Sam Steel Café where the gelato is sold. One of her students, senior Celina Ramirez said she’s scooped up more gelato knowledge than she ever imagined.

“When we formulate the gelatos it’s a lot of science between the sugar and the water and making sure that you have the right proportions and making sure that everything is cooked and frozen at the right temperatures. It’s really interesting and I never thought I would be interested in it and now look at me,” Ramirez said.

After switching her major a few times, Ramirez said she decided to study human nutrition and dietetic sciences because of cancer diagnoses in her family.

“The medical field is such a great field to go into, but I also feel like prevention is the key and with my family we have a lot of cancer situations in my family, so I wanted to get ahead of it and when I started studying for nutrition it was more as a way to figure out why this happened and how I can prevent and make sure people aren’t affected the same way I was,” Ramirez said.

While making gelato is a sweet perk of the class, food science students don’t just play with their food, they also get real life experience by testing, packaging and selling what they make.  Biel said everything students produce must adhere to state and federal food safety regulations down to the nutrition facts. She said there’s not many local food science businesses that give undergraduates the kind of real-life work experience that ACES Foods does.

“So we’re trying to teach our students what it’s like to have an actual job in that career field. I think a lot of students in college kind of connection of ‘I’m getting my degree in this and what is the end result? What am I going to do after I graduate?’ So that’s my goal with ACES Foods is to show those students exactly what they’ll be doing in real life,” Biel said.

ACES also gives students experience in the hospitality sector. Students in the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management school get hands-on experience running their own restaurant.

At 100 West Café, students spend equal time in the kitchen and dining room during the semester learning service skills like table setting, bussing and cooking. The café is open for an hour a day and serves different-themed meals each week.

Junior Megan Lansford said she really enjoys helping people in customer service and plans to work in the hotel industry.

“I like turning people’s days around and that’s really what we’re learning is customer service, how to help people, the ins and outs of the industry,” Lansford said. “It’s great, it’s very hands on and that’s what drew me to the program is how hands on everything is and I just love it because I feel like I’m just jumping right in.”

Lansford said she’s going to Florence, Italy in the summer to take a food and wine pairing class and will intern afterwards at a Hyatt Regency luxury resort in Austin, Texas.  She said she wouldn’t have those opportunities without the support she’s received in the program.

“It’s really built my confidence and gotten me out there to experience all this stuff and it’s just, I would have never thought I’d be going to Italy and spending the summer somewhere else until I came to this program,” Lansford said.

Career ladders are short in the food industry because of high turnover according to Professor Chef John Hartley. That means students can rise quickly through the ranks. Hartley said students learn the business side of the job so they know how to run a hotel or restaurant profitably, but he also tells them to have a good time.

“Most jobs you have to deal with the public on a constant basis and deal with hundreds or thousands of people on a daily basis, but we basically get paid to help people have fun and help people have good experiences, so what better way to make money?” Hartley said.

When it comes to food science, Biel agreed.

“I just really like it because I was really interested in nutrition and I just felt like I was kind of running into a brick wall in that area. I just wasn’t good at convincing people what to eat and so I just want to make people happy with the type of food that we can offer and gelato, there’s no better way to make people happy than with something sweet,” Biel said.

For these students, finding a career in what they’re passionate about is just as sweet.

The NMSUACES Open House takes place Saturday, April 14 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.