NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — More than 400 school food service professionals and business administrators from around New Jersey previewed the newest healthy school lunch and breakfast offerings available from food manufacturers for the 2017-2018 school year today at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick.
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture presented the Fifth Annual USDA Foods Conference to showcase healthy school lunch and breakfast offerings that could appear in school cafeterias around the state next school year. The conference featured more than 40 vendors displaying the latest trends in prepared school menu items made from U.S. Department of Agriculture donated bulk foods that also meet the nutritional requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act school food regulations implemented in 2013.
“The USDA Foods Distribution program provides a cost savings to school districts and at the same time provides nutritious foods that appeal to children’s tastes,” said New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher. “This program is part of the Christie Administration’s overall efforts to assist school districts in lowering costs and provide students with healthy options.”
The USDA Foods Distribution program allows schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to utilize USDA foods and distribute them to processors who make nutritious, reduced-fat, lower sodium, whole grain products at a cost savings to school districts.
The conference gave school food service professionals the opportunity to sample the foods and speak directly with manufacturers to meet their district’s specific needs, helping them to determine which foods to order for the 2017-2018 school year.
This year, there were many creative options including, chicken egg rolls, sweet potato french fries, pizza-filled cheese sticks and attractively bagged apple slices and pineapple slices.
Vendors from the eastern half of the United States, including those from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, were in attendance.
“We try to come up with ways to make things easier, which helps schools with the labor part of things,” said Heather Drumbore, with Service First Food Sales from Lehigh County, Pa. “We have boil in the bag items, beef you can add to noodles to make beef stroganoff and Asian food items as well.”
Food vendors as well as school administrators are aware of the USDA nutrition requirements that schools must meet when serving food.
“We offer sweet potatoes because one of the requirements is they have to serve a red or orange vegetable,” said Gerry Smizaski, of McCain Foods from Wisconsin, whose company has several different types of sweet potato offerings. “Sweet potatoes meet that requirement.”
One New Jersey company that has benefitted from the demand for fresh food is Seashore Fruit and Produce based out of Penns Grove, N.J., which purchases large quantities of foods from New Jersey farmers during the local growing season.
“Schools are looking to offer a lot of green vegetables now,” said Marc Albrecht, of Seashore. “They offer Baby Kale with dip and they offer different styles of zucchini and squash. They do a great job coming up with ideas on how to offer it.”
The chance to do some taste testing and meeting food vendor representatives is an important part of the conference for the school food service directors in attendance.
“We are always looking to add more value to our menu,” said Pat Johnson, South Orange Maplewood School District Food Service Director. “Today, kids are more open to trying different things. They want the menu to be diversified.”
“We are always looking for new options that the kids will like,” said Tom Beck, Egg Harbor Township School District Food Service Director. “What we like to do, too, is bring vendors to our school and have our staff test it. Because if they like it, then they can tell the students how good it is.”
Johnson said the conference is a key step in bringing quality food to students and staff.
“It gives us a chance to meet people and to see what we like,” Johnson said. “It helps us make the right decision.”
To start out the day, sessions were held to give program updates, review different types of acceptable procurements, and educate about the Department of Defense Direct Delivery of Produce program. The program enables school districts to receive a larger variety of produce delivered directly to schools on a weekly basis. It also allows schools to purchase more Jersey Fresh products during the growing season.
For more information on the USDA Foods Distribution program, visit www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/fn/fooddistrib/slcd.html.
— New Jersey Department of Agriculture