FOODBIZ aims at promoting acquisition of relevant skills and competences related to employability in higher education students through their active involvement in community learning activities. This will allow them a) to learn in context; b) to establish links with enterprises and other stakeholders of the territory to which the university belongs; c) to understand the economic strengths and opportunities of the territory in relation to agri-food and food tourism; d) to reflect about their own competences, motivations, and ambitions; e) to contribute to community development and job creation. FOODBIZ supports then innovation and creativity of students and all players involved through regional partnership: the project aims at promoting co-creation of knowledge between students, business players, researchers/universities, other stakeholders concerned, and policy makers for local development in the field of agri-food and food tourism.
A recent policy brief published by the European Commission on “Food and Gastronomy as Elements of Regional Innovation Strategies” (Cavicchi and Ciampi-Stancova, 2016), emphasizes the role that agriculture and horeca can have for sustainable development. The combined agricultural and food sector accounts today for 30 million jobs (13.4% of total employment) and for 3.5% of total Gross Value Added in the EU-28 (Eurostat 2014). In 2012, the European Economic and Social Committee of European Union contemplated that regional food value chains and cross-sectoral fertilisation of productive processes have a strong impact on local development. Several initiatives and projects carried out at local and regional level, confirm the huge potential of food to contribute to job creation, social well-being, and cultural and health commodity. Food tourism strategies are significant instruments of regional development, particularly because of the potential leverage between products from the two sectors (Hall et al. 2005), and consequently significant sectors for new enterprises creation and increased job offers. Food is also part of the immaterial cultural heritage, as stated by the WTO (2012), as embedded in local identities of destinations.
In spite of high potential and running policies to enhance agri-food and food tourism, implementation face major problems, such as difficult dialogue among heterogeneous stakeholders, which often have very different set of values and interests; lack of training and business planning, due to limited time, finances, personnel, skills, and experience of food producers and local touristic players (Verbole 2003; Saxena et al. 2007); high skills mismatch between graduates in related subjects and the sector needs.
In the frame of a socioecological approach, that is particularly relevant in sectors where the environment and the strength of communities play a key role for local development, higher education institutions could initiate and favour processes of community learning, in particular by focusing on the role of students.
Higher education students could be key players of innovation, and key mediators between research, business, and local development: they represent the educated workforce of the future, and to be employable and active contributors of economy, they should acquire skills that are relevant to the labour market. However, in addition to what the universities are used to do (courses on soft skills, career development support and career guidance, entrepreneurship courses etc.), they first need to understand and know their own contexts and communities, relate with business players, policy makers, other stakeholders, and create synergies with them since the study years.
The project aims at implementing an action where the students are active in the community to which their belong during the study years, bringing into the university the knowledge of the community and vice-versa, and co-creating with other players, as peer, new knowledge and innovation. The key element of the project is therefore the concept of co-creation, which takes place when all the subjects involved establish a dialogue, reciprocal understanding and common goals.