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(TRENTON) — Assembly Environment Committee Chairman John F. McKeon and Assembly members John J. Burzichelli and Annette Quijano welcomed the first ‘Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week’ which begins today as a result of a measure they sponsored which was signed into law in January this year.

Under the measure (A-2854), events are being planned in schools throughout the state for a week in September starting today, September 26 through September 30 to promote the value and importance of New Jersey’s agriculture and fresh farm food for children.

“New Jersey has a rich range of local produce and is one of the nation’s top-ten producers of fruits and vegetables varying from blueberries, peaches and bell peppers to tomatoes, cucumbers and cranberries,” McKeon (D-Essex) said. “Educating our children about our state’s diverse and delicious agricultural fare and the nutritious value of local and safe ‘Jersey Fresh’ produce, will help them cultivate healthier food choices and make them aware of the importance of supporting local farmers.”

The measure also calls for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to create a bidding matrix that will encourage schools to purchase ‘Jersey Fresh’ by providing price preferentials for local agricultural and farm products.

“By encouraging our schools to purchase local fare, we will be helping farmers stay on their land and providing a boost to New Jersey’s estimated $1.12 billion agricultural industry,” Burzichelli (D-Salem\Cumberland\Gloucester) said. “We will also be helping tens of thousands of New Jersey residents whose livelihoods depend on the more than 10,300 farms in our state.”

“As we grow our state’s economy on the path to economic recovery, ‘Jersey Fresh’ needs to continue to be an important focus,” Quijano (D-Union) said. “The “Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week” measure will harvest growing support for our farming community by encouraging schools to purchase local fare while promoting healthier food choices for our children.”

Studies show a very high return on the investment in promoting ‘Jersey Fresh.’ According to a Rutgers University report, the $1.1 million spent in 2000 to promote local fare had an economic impact of $63.2 million. This included increased cash receipts of $36.6 million for fruits and vegetables and an additional $26.6 million in economic activity. It also generated an increase in state and local tax revenue by $2.2 million for that year.

The “Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week” enhances the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s estimated $3.8 million Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program to help raise the awareness of ‘Jersey Fresh’ among school students and encourage them to sample and eat the healthy and diverse products produced in the state’s farms.

The state Agriculture Department has selected 143 schools in 16 counties to participate in the program for the school calendar year 2011 to 2012 that will involve an estimated 50,000 students.

This is a 48.4 percent increase on the federal funding of $2.5 million provided last year for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program in which 101 schools in 15 counties participated.

McKeon welcomed this initiative by the federal government and also commended the state Department of Agriculture headed by Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher for the department’s innovative and aggressive programs to promote ‘Jersey Fresh.’

“From partnerships with restaurants and hospitals to university food service, all of which have made commitments to purchase and serve Jersey Fresh, the department has done a great job in promoting our state’s produce,” McKeon said.

He also commended the Jersey Fresh Farm to School Network headed by Beth Feehan for its long-standing commitment to promoting the state’s agricultural fare and for supporting policies to improve school meals.

As a result of a collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the popular Crab’s Claw Inn on the Jersey shore became the first restaurant in the state to offer a complete Jersey Fresh meal to include Jersey Fresh produce, Jersey-landed seafood and Jersey Fresh cheese and wine.

In October schools throughout the nation will observe Farm to School month as a result of legislation sponsored by Congressman Rush Holt.