LIVINGSTON, NJ — Livingston’s Academy360, a program of a local nonprofit called Spectrum360 that serves children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other related disabilities, was recently named the winner of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s (NJDA) “Best in New Jersey Farm to School Award” for its Culinary Academy360 and gardening program.

The presentation of the award kicked off the celebration of the 10th annual Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week, which was held during the week of Sept. 21 to Sept. 25.

“It is great to see Farm to School used to expand horizons by using local produce in the teaching kitchen and for growing plants in the greenhouse,” said NJDA Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher. “Academy360 uses Farm to School as a therapy and skills tool for students with special needs.”

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Academy360 Executive Chef Michael Matthews and school principal Lynn Muir were on hand earlier this week to accept the award.

“We try to teach our students the full circle of food from seed to harvest to the kitchen and finally the table,” said Matthews. “We have a greenhouse on campus that we can take full advantage of, for items such as herbs, assorted greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.—depending on the season, of course.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Matthews continued teaching through Google Classroom and determined a new theme each week for the cooking classes, during which he and his students prepared the dishes.

According to the NJDA, critical lessons such as culinary math, culinary science, weights, measure, food safety, kitchen safety, proper personal hygiene, world geography, appropriate cutlery skills, time and temperature were reinforced while creating the dishes. 

In order to support families and provide further enrichment to the Spectrum360 community, Matthews also led a virtual after-school cooking class for all staff, students and family members, which allowed them to explore everything from cake decorating to barbeque preparations.

In addition to the award presented to Academy360, more than 20 other schools are being recognized for their Farm to School efforts in the 2019-2020 school year. In order to enter the competition, schools had to showcase how their work with farmers and the community ensures that students have access to healthy fruits and vegetables in their school cafeterias and classrooms.

Due to unforeseen circumstances and school closures last school year, schools had to react quickly and creatively with their meals. Many schools provided a variety of fresh produce in their grab-and-go meals with funding from the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable (FFVP) and Department of Defense (DoDFresh) Programs.

Other 2019-2020 applicants included the following schools, which have all received Jersey Fresh Farm to School promotional materials such as masks, banners, stickers and seasonality charts:

  • Absegami High School, Galloway
  • Bridgeton High School, Bridgeton
  • Broad Street School, Bridgeton
  • Buckshutem Road School, Bridgeton
  • Central Jersey College Prep Charter School, Somerset
  • Cherry Street School, Bridgeton
  • Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology, Newark
  • Essex County - West Caldwell Tech, West Caldwell
  • Geraldyn O Foster Early Childhood Center, Bridgeton
  • Hamburg Elementary School, Hamburg
  • High Bridge Elementary, High Bridge
  • Indian Avenue School, Bridgeton
  • John P. Stevens High School, Edison
  • Juan Pablo Duarte - Jose Julian Marti School 28, Elizabeth
  • Mount Olive Township School District, Budd Lake
  • Nicholas LaCorte School # 3, Elizabeth
  • Paul Robeson Charter School, Trenton
  • Plainfield Schools, Plainfield
  • Quarter Mile Lane, Bridgeton
  • Red Bank Primary School, Red Bank
  • Somerset Intermediate School, North Plainfield
  • West Avenue School, Bridgeton

All schools that submit an application and meet the criteria are added to the NJDA’s list of School Recognition Program Schools, which can be found on this program map.

Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week was designated as the last week of each September, according to a law signed in 2010. During this week, the NJDA showcases schools that connect with New Jersey farmers to purchase local produce for school meals to increase student consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

According to the NJDA, the influence of the Farm to School Program has led to more than 250 schools purchasing local produce from their main distributor, more than 200 districts buying local produce directly from farms and using a curriculum that ties cafeteria meals to healthy eating education and more than 100 districts organizing field trips to farms.

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