Food challenges

Tina Todorova

A prizewinning graduate juggled a full time job in the fruit supply chain and caring for her young son while studying for a challenging professional diploma.

In 2015 Tina Todorova was a technologist working with melon producers when her boss at Primafruit, one of the UK’s largest fruit distributers, told her about an “exciting new professional programme” she could apply for.

The online training programme, Food Challenges for the 21st Century, came out of a long-term collaboration between Lancaster University and Waitrose. It was aimed at people involved in the supermarket’s fresh produce supply chain across the globe, providing them with the opportunity to learn about the science and theory behind fruit, veg and flower production.

Tina heard more about the new programme at a Waitrose’s training event, from Alan Wilson, the supermarket’s then head of Agronomy, who was speaking about the urgent need to increase the sustainable production of nutritious food to feed the world’s growing population.

“I remember Alan talking about how agriculture is desperate for professionals that understand and can pass on knowledge from different fields like soils, environmental impact and technology.

“It seemed a bit of a romantic idea, a vision,” says Tina, who studied aeronautical engineering in her Bulgarian homeland before moving to the UK. “I love a challenge. I have a hunger for knowledge and like to learn new things,”

So, despite having a three year old son and a demanding job, Tina enrolled in the first cohort of the ground breaking online course.

Three and a half years and a lot of work later, Tina was the first student to complete the eight modules needed to gain a Postgraduate Diploma in Food Security, having covered a wide range of topics from soil and plant science to pests and diseases and biotechnology. She graduated with a distinction and was awarded the Lancaster Environment Centre 2018 prize for the best performance in a postgraduate diploma.

“It’s never been easy to find the right balance between being mother to a very young child, a very challenging full time job and academically challenging studies. I could only do it because the course was online and I had 24-hour access.

“I would put my son to bed and log in late at night, studying between 10 at night to 2 in the morning. I could look at the video lectures again and again, which I needed to do as some of the materials were at such a high level.”

As well as online study Tina attended residential programmes at the Lancaster University campus and built up strong relationships with both the academics involved and with her fellow students, who came from all over the world.

“It was amazing, it felt like I was part of an academic community. Distance learning can be something quite lonely, and although we took part in discussions on the online forums, I really enjoyed the occasions when we met up. You learn a lot from the other students and I still keep in touch with quite a few of them.

“The support was brilliant, Sue (Ward, one of the tutors) in particular made me believe in myself. Her passion, her devotion is very contagious.”

During her studies, Tina was promoted at be Head of Product Management at Primafruit, leading a team of 16 who are managing products in the postharvest environment. She feels the course has changed the way she does her job.

“I have gained so much, even the way I talk and I write has changed: I am so confident now. Over last few months I have been involved in quite a few meetings with production: the way I give them the facts now, linking them to academic sources, means they listen to me much more and treat me as an authority.”

“I have a great sense of accomplishment which makes me believe that I have the potential to achieve.”

Jim Flambert, Tina’s boss at Primafruit who first suggested she did the course is delighted.

“We are exceedingly proud of Tina’s achievement. She had worked incredibly hard to get to this point and strived for nothing short of the best at every stage: this really recognises that determination.

“We have had a number of our colleagues taking part in the course to varying degrees and each of them has found the modules they undertook useful in their day to day activities.”

Tina is not the only prizewinner from the Food Challenges course. Fellow student Karen Covey, from G’s, another leading fresh produce company, won the Lancaster Environment Centre 2018 prize for Best Overall Performance in a Postgraduate Certificate.

Learn more about the distance learning MSc in Food Security and Food Challenges programme, plus other continuing professional development programmes at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

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