Five Questions for: George Jonkoski

FoodService Director - Five Questions for: George Jonkoski - Somerset Medical CenterGeorge Jonkoski, director of food and nutrition services at 355-bed Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., partnered with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to purchase locally grown produce through a program called Jersey Fresh. Jonkoski talked with FSD about creating this innovative partnership.

What is the Jersey Fresh program?

We partnered with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and a non-profit organization called the Eastern Produce Council to promote locally grown, Jersey Fresh products both in our retail and patient feeding operations.

The partnership was an off-chance suggestion from somebody who knew someone on our foundation team. The foundation member asked me what I thought of the idea, and I said I thought it was a great idea. It helps promote freshness and reduces our carbon footprint, which a lot of people are concerned about. We aren’t trucking our produce in from California or Florida. People want to know where their produce is coming from. It is also supporting the local farmers in a bad economy. It’s a win-win all the way around.

Other hospitals have asked us what we’re up to as the news is breaking. The greatest interest we’ve had so far has been from the secretary of agriculture from South Carolina. He wants to do the same type of program starting with the universities. No one has ever done this before. We’re the first ones to partner with the state’s Department of Agriculture so everyone is kind of waiting for us to get up and running with some type of structure. Then they want us to come talk with them so they can mimic it in other states.

There are endless ideas and avenues for this that we are still trying to come up with. It’s amazing that the Jersey Fresh program is 26 years old and no one has ever thought of doing this before. Why haven’t they? We’re glad that we are the first. It just makes so much sense. I guess the lesson learned is that when someone comes up to you and says they might have a crazy idea you should listen to them because it wasn’t such a crazy idea; it was a great idea. The Jersey Fresh program was being promoted in farms and grocery stores before. It just recently started catching on in restaurants, but we are the first institution to come up with a set program to do this.

How will Jersey Fresh be implemented into the foodservice operations?

We started May 1 with produce. We have been catering our menus according to what products have been coming in from the farm. We started with things like asparagus and arugula. Now we are moving on to cabbage, cucumbers and peas. We are eventually going to get into tomatoes and corn. As the season progresses, we’re putting what’s available on the menu. It’s a little different from what people normally do. We are tailoring our menu to what’s fresh and available rather than having a set menu and telling our produce people to go find the stuff.

This is being done in both patient and retail menus. We are also promoting it in a cooking demo that we do for cancer patients that is shown on cable TV once a month and also through our community outreach program. All told we serve more than 1 million meals a year, so 1 million times a year we are touching people with Jersey Fresh.

How are you marketing the Jersey Fresh program?

Anything that has a Jersey Fresh ingredient in the cafeteria is being promoted with a Jersey Fresh logo. We have banners hanging up saying we are promoting the program. Anything on the patient menu says if it has something like Jersey Fresh cucumbers in it.

Starting June 28, we are starting a farmers’ market once a week in our parking lot for visitor and employees. We’re hoping to spill that over into the cafeteria so people can buy fresh produce during the week.

Why did you feel it was important to start the program and partnership?

It was important for us to build this partnership because we can’t just partner with one farm to do more than a million meals. We have to have a statewide program and they were the avenue to tap into what’s available with co-ops to buy the vegetables from, to help our produce vendors because it’s something new for them and to develop relationships with the farmers. Southern New Jersey’s climate is different from the northern part of the state so we had to time things as the products became available. First things came from south, then central, then north. Each section has a different growing season so it was a lot to try to coordinate. The state provides us with an update once a week on what’s going to be harvested and what’s coming in season and what’s not.

We get the update and we contact our vendor. The vendor reaches out to the co-ops and the wholesale farmers that they deal with to see what they have available out of the list we give them. They get back to us and we make a menu. We give them an order to get however many of whatever items we are going to use.

What were you doing before the program in terms of buying locally?

The funny thing is we weren’t making a conscious effort to buy locally before this program. Depending on the season, some things were coming in locally through the produce company, but it wasn’t an emphasis for them or for us. Now it is. For instance, California strawberries are in season now but so are New Jersey’s so we are trying to buy just Jersey strawberries. In the past we would have bought whatever was coming in from the produce company.