WASHINGTON -- A growing worldwide population demands more food products, a challenge that seems far removed from the vast plenty of America's supermarkets. But dozens of people from the retail food and baking industries are volunteering their professional skills to help meet that challenge in countries where the food supply is limited.
"Exhilarated is how I felt," said Charles Beyersdorfer, a technical consultant to the baking industry based in Fairview Heights, Ill., and a former retail baker with Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, and Publix Supermarkets, Lakeland, Fla. Beyersdorfer volunteered to demonstrate new bakery products and operations to a former Soviet government-owned bakery in Voronezh, Russia. "I learned even more than I taught, in just one week," he said.
Beyersdorfer and others traveled through the efforts of ACDI/VOCA, an acronym for Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance. The two organizations, based here, merged their operations in 1997, sharing a common goal of providing technical and management assistance to small businesses and growers in emerging countries.
Because agriculture is the foundation of most developing economies, such assistance can boost farmer income, promote food security, support the stability of the community, and pave the way for future trade. Owned and supported by some of the largest cooperatives and farm credit banks in the United States, ACDI/VOCA has placed volunteers in thousands of short-term assignments in developing countries and emerging democracies.
But potential volunteers should not take the responsibility lightly, Beyersdorfer cautioned: His time in Russia was no tourist's jaunt.
"I lived just like the Russians do, very simply, and worked side by side in their bakery plant. I showed them how to bake popular staples, like oatmeal cookies with raisins and brownies," he said. "As former government-owned bakeries in Russia have been privatized, the bakery personnel need to learn how to compete and market their products to consumers. For example, though the people in Voronezh ate oatmeal as a cereal, they had never tasted oatmeal cookies. It was all new to them."
The challenge for these assignments, said Kent Ayers, ACDI/VOCA's West coast recruiter, is to teach local food producers how to work better and more efficiently with the resources and ingredients available to them. Another volunteer, Jan Nijssen, a certified master baker and former college educator, agreed.
"To bring an American cookbook would be useless in many of these countries," he said. "Instead, I research the country's food supply before I go, and try to formulate recipes with ingredients that are familiar and available, but to use those ingredients in ways that will be new to them and still doable."
"Shortening was new to them; they had never used baking powder; there were no prepared pastry fillings such as strawberry or raspberry," recalled Beyersdorfer. "When I asked what fruit fillings they had available for Danish pastries, I was presented with a basket of fresh, whole apples."
In Moscow and larger resort areas, such luxury products might be available in places that cater to the wealthy. However, in more remote towns and villages, "bakers mostly sell just plain rolls and breads, with special occasion cakes such as genoise, which is leavened only with eggs," he added.
Beyersdorfer completed his assignment in less than two weeks, although some assignments can last as long as several months, at multiple sites within a region or country. As a result, ACDI/VOCA volunteers tend to be self-employed as consultants or recent retirees who can arrange a sabbatical.
Nijssen, as a former baking consultant with General Mills, and college professor of food service education, was well equipped to volunteer for ACDI/VOCA. To date, he has completed more than 25 assignments all over the world, but particularly in the Ukraine and Bulgaria.
"I grew up in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation of World War II, and after the war was over, I remember we had very little," Nijssen said. "But we were lucky to have the Marshall Plan to rebuild our economy. I understand what it means to have nothing, so I think of this as my chance to offer training that these people, who survived under Communism, can use to improve their lives."
Nijssen now lives in Idaho, where he started his career as a baker with Boise-based Albertson's.
"I structure my assignments just like a seminar," said Nijssen. "I lecture in the morning on bookkeeping, operations, merchandising -- using the services of a translator -- and follow up with hands-on training in the afternoon, modifying recipes to create something marketable." In the process, participants learn about sanitation, safety and quality control, and other aspects of commercial retail baking, he added.
"We try to keep the assignments short enough that people can take their vacation time," noted Ayers. "Though ACDI/VOCA does not pay anything more than the direct expenses, many volunteers speak of being rewarded with the achievements and enthusiasm of their hosts."
For example, Nijssen was recognized by a Bulgarian bakery with specialty muffins bearing both his name and the ACDI/VOCA logo on its package label.
Some volunteers are sought by large food companies and factories which seek to upgrade equipment or management operations. Other volunteers must be comfortable with hands-on assignments in rural areas, such as helping a group of villagers in Africa to start a small, local bakery.
"These are not the kinds of businesses that will be competing with any U.S. companies. They are just trying to learn," said Ayers, who added that sometimes, the volunteer finds immediate opportunity. One recent volunteer assignment led to an exporting opportunity for a U.S. bakery ingredients supplier.
"I'd felt a slight void in my life because I didn't have my fingers in the dough anymore," said Lucas Gallegos, a retired Virginia baker and former president of the Retail Bakers Association of America. "My gratification is that I can see the improvement and the willingness of these people to learn."
Gallegos even helped ACDI/VOCA when the nonprofit organization hosted a tour of Romanian bakers to visit pastry shops and retail bakeries here in Washington. After completing two volunteer assignments in Romania, Gallegos helped guide his former hosts around successful area bakeries, assisting them to learn about market development and retail promotion, beyond issues of basic production.
"Romanians eat a lot of bread," said Gallegos, but need to develop markets for higher-quality products to boost sales. And in a former state-run economy, basic marketing principles -- how to price and market products for profitability -- were never emphasized. And, mistakes can be expensive. One Romanian baker admitted that she lost money trying to sell a flatbread flavored with onions and spices, because "people just don't have the money to buy specialty breads."