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Healthy school meals processed with NJ produce

by Diane Holtaway | June 01, 2012

It is one of Michelle Obama’s top priorities, the Let’s Move Initiative — America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture in partnership with Rutgers University is well on their way to bringing healthy, kid-tested food products made with local produce to New Jersey school cafeterias.

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center has been commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to research, develop, and determine commercialization opportunities for healthy school menu items made with Jersey Fresh produce.   Funded by a USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant, the intent of the project is to develop school breakfast and lunch items that meet the requirements of the National School Food Service program.

More than 800,000 pounds of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables are distributed to New Jersey schools annually. Since much of the school year does not coincide with the growing season, the processing of this fresh produce into appealing menu items enables schools to serve healthy lunch and breakfast items made with local produce throughout the school year.

To date, FIC staff and collaborators in the Rutgers Department of Family and Community Health Sciences and the NJDA have researched the parameters the menu items must address effectively, such as, cost, preparation, nutrition and taste. Eight products have been developed including a Breakfast Yogurt-Berry Parfait, Eggplant Parmesan Pizzas, Zesty Fajita Filling and Asian Stir-Fry.

According to Diane Holtaway, associate director of client services, “The project is a quadruple win for students, school food service directors, farmers and local food processors, bringing delicious new menu items to cafeterias, while generating economic development opportunities for local farmers and processors.”

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center is a unique business incubation and economic development accelerator program that provides business and technology expertise to small and mid-sized food and agribusinesses in New Jersey, and utilizes its outreach capacity to reach the food industry throughout the nation. Clients include farmers and cooperatives, startup food companies, existing small and mid-sized food establishments and retail and foodservice markets. The center’s new 23,000-square-foot food incubator facility enables the marketing, development and distribution of new products for the center’s clients, and the evaluation of new technologies and processes. In addition to the school food service products in test, the Rutgers Food Innovation Center has worked with several local growers who have been successful with bringing value-added Made with Jersey Fresh products to market.

Some of the unique food products available to consumers and food service operators through the help of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center include: Circle M Farms Peach Cider, First Field Jersey Ketchup and Sheppard Farms Fresh-cut Microwaveable Asparagus.

Further information can be found at www.foodinnovation.rutgers.edu.

(Diane Holtaway is with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, NJ.)