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Improving schools’ nutritional offerings helps increase the market for New Jersey produce

by Douglas H. Fisher | May 25, 2011

New Jersey agriculture has long had a close association with the schools in our state, one which mutually benefits our produce industry through opportunities to sell products into the schools and which helps the schools offer healthier, more nutritious foods to their students.

With our school nutrition policy directing schools on healthier alternatives to high-sugar, high-fat foods that should be offered in schools, the focus of many school foodservice providers has turned to ways in which they can introduce more fresh or minimally processed, locally grown agricultural products into their menus.

New Jersey will see an increase of approximately 40 percent in the number of schools participating in the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program when the next school year begins. We’ll be moving up from 101 schools this year to 143 in the next school year, in part due to increased U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and our state-level efforts to grow the outreach.

This program aims to increase the fresh fruit and vegetable consumption among school children, with the ultimate goal of cultivating lifelong produce purchasers whose good dietary habits will, in the long run, increase sales in the industry.

That effort to bring more of our state’s harvest to the schools also should be helped by recent revisions of USDA rules to encourage the use of locally produced farm products across an array of school-nutrition programs. The final rule would allow schools and their foodservice providers the ability to give preference to purchasing unprocessed, locally grown farm products.

Such a local preference is a key in a state like New Jersey, where our schools in urban and suburban areas are in close proximity to our farms, and our “Jersey Fresh” and other branding programs have shown over time to be effective ways of ensuring that consumers equate “locally grown” with coming from farms right here in the Garden State.

The challenge for New Jersey in finding wider markets among our schools has always been the seasonal nature of our farms. While some of our earlier crops become available in the last few months of the school year, and some of our later crops are available for a few months at the beginning of the next school year, the biggest part of our season — when the greatest variety of our crops are in the market — falls during the months of summer recess for our schools.

As part of addressing that issue, we are working with Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center, through a federal grant, to develop value-added processed food items that would be made from Jersey produce but which could be held and made available once the school year begins.

Making sure those products get to the schools is half the story. Once they’re received, our school foodservice providers must present them to students in the most appealing and practical ways.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture has made strides in that area as well.

In April, the department and Rutgers announced that nine schools had been chosen to receive mini-grants of $7,500 each to help students eat more fruits and vegetables, learn about good nutrition and promote locally grown produce.

While students will be growing some of these foods themselves in school gardens, the spinoff effect of turning them on to healthier eating will result in more choices for fresh fruits and vegetables at home as well.

Prior to those mini-grants, the department had awarded nearly $2 million in grants through the economic stimulus package to help 95 schools’ foodservice providers buy needed cafeteria equipment needed to present these foods in a way students respond to.

These latest developments are part of an ongoing push to upgrade the nutritional offerings in our schools. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture assumed responsibility for school feeding programs in the mid-1990s. From that point, through the adoption of the school nutrition policy and into our current efforts to expand the locally grown and produced farm products made available to students, our coordinated effort to link schools with the Garden State’s produce industry has been a steady progression.

I was privileged recently to report to the association that represents school foodservice providers in New Jersey that daily participation for school lunch increased 1.8 percent this year and that participation in school breakfast showed a 3.8 percent increase. That means efforts to bring healthy, nutritious foods to schools are reaching even more students.

Ultimately, enhancing the nutritional value of all the foods offered in our schools accomplishes the twin goals of creating a healthier student population and expanding the overall market for our locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

(Douglas H. Fisher is New Jersey’s secretary of agriculture.)