At first the audience was surprised by keynote speaker Karen Fynan’s greeting, “Happy New Year!” After all, it was the middle of August. But as she continued, they got it: “For me, the beginning of the school year is the new year,” she said.

Fynan, president and founder of Nutri-Serve Food Management Inc., had recently been awarded a one-year, renewable contract from the Princeton school district. Her audience at the August seminar included the local directors of the 79 districts her company serves.

Princeton chose Nutri-Serve, Fynan learned from superintendent Stephen Cochrane, because it is offering the township what it wants: a company that will serve nutritious, good tasting food to its students, and a company that will work with the district to address its needs and make changes if desired. “We know what it takes,” Fynan said during a break from her seminar.

Also attending the orientation was Joel Rosa, Nutri-Serve’s new food service director for the Princeton district. Rosa, who will work from the administration building on Valley Road when not visiting the cafeterias of the district’s six schools, joins the company with more than five years of restaurant management experience in New Jersey, degrees in hospitality and nutrition from Montclair University and Middlesex County College, and, in his words, “a passion for empowering youth.”

The Nutri-Serve orientation fueled that passion. “Together we heard great public speakers such as Mark Edrington who spoke about Fooditude (Food attitude) and how it creates a great work environment,” says Rosa. “It was a wonderful learning experience from beginning to end. The culture of Nutri-Serve is remarkable and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

The Princeton staff is still finalizing the school lunch offerings but a few items on the menu will include humus with veggie sticks, chicken salad sliders, and black bean cookies, Fynan says.

Fynan has been interested in nutrition and health as long as she can remember, but one experience during college had a real-life impact on her career choice. “After completing a rotation at a Philadelphia hospital, I knew I wanted to work in schools where I could make a difference in forming healthy meal choices for children. In the hospital, I saw the damage that people suffered from making wrong choices,” Fynan says.

While Fynan knew that achieving her goals would take work, she knew she would make it. Today she has two posters on her office wall that sum up the philosophy that helped her become a successful entrepreneur: integrity and persistence.

As the school’s food management company for Princeton, Nutri-Serve will create the menus; order the food and pay the bills, and make sure that all federal and state regulations are met. It will provide training for the food service workers already on the school’s staff, and hire and train new personnel where needed. The company also hires and works closely with the school district’s local director, the role that Rosa will handle.

Nutri-Serve has been in business since 1987 and serves 210 schools in 79 school districts: 77 in South and Central New Jersey and two in Pennsylvania. In addition to Princeton, Nutri-Serve serves one other district in Mercer County, the Trenton Catholic Academy.

For Fynan, offering nutritious food is just part of the equation. Making the food appealing and integrating lunch and snack time with learning is just as important, she says. It involves extending the cafeteria into the classroom.

A long-time supporter of school gardens, Fynan was glad to learn that the Princeton districts already have school gardens in place. In addition to providing produce that can be used in lunches or tasting events, the garden can be a focal point for teaching earth sciences, nutrition, vocabulary, and other topics. “And young kids learn that food doesn’t come from the grocery store but from the earth,” Fynan said.

Another example of Fynan’s integrative approach involves analysis and writing skills. In the “plain versus chocolate-milk challenge,” students analyze the pros (like protein) and cons (like refined sugar) of the two options and write a report on their findings. They then get to choose which beverage they prefer. If they chose chocolate, they can then decide where they can cut back on sugar elsewhere in their diet for that day.

For younger students, Fynan offers uses a “Balloons for a Balanced Lunch” program where students choose lunch items from each food group represented by colored balloons: orange for grains, green for veggies, red for fruit, yellow for oils and energy, blue for milk, and purple for protein.

For high-schoolers, Fynan is thinking about giving students the choice of using tote bags instead of cafeteria trays. Students can come to the cafeteria with the bag, carry out the food and eat wherever they choose. This could appeal to students who don’t want to stay in the cafeteria or who want to eat at a different time of day Fynan says.

Fynan believes a collaborative approach is the best way to run a business. She tailors her programs to meet the needs and preferences of the individual districts they serve. You need to take into account ethnic, social and economic factors, she says. Fynan plans to set up separate meetings for school staff, parents, and students, and she also plans to use Google docs’ surveys online. “We’re excited about serving Princeton because parents and students are eager to express their opinions,” Fynan says.

Keeping money in the community is an important aspect of Fynan’s approach. Fynan says she buys Jersey Fresh produce and locally sourced food whenever possible. It supports local business and makes the best use of taxpayer money, she says.

Overall, the more money Nutri-Serve saves, and the more students who buy the school lunches, the better it is for the school. Fynan explains that her company is paid for managing the school lunch program, not the individual lunches it sells.

Fynan’s education is in food service systems administration/management and education, and nutrition. She holds a master’s degree from Rutgers University and a bachelor’s from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is also a registered dietitian.

She graduated from Rutgers in 1979 and worked for a small food management company for several years. But over time, she felt a growing desire to move out on her own. “All of the executives in the field were men, and promises were made that were not kept,” she says. After 11 years, she cut ties with the company and began the work of forming her own business. “I wanted to provide highly nutritious and good tasting food to school districts. And I wanted to follow my own ethics,” she says.

So she set to the task of creating a business plan, contacting school districts and proposing a program that would provide a food service that emphasized nutrition. She decided to call her company, “Nutri-Serve Food Management.” At that time, she was running her company from her condominium with no employees.

In September of 1987, Fynan won her first customer in the school district of Lindenwold in Camden County and is still serving them today, 28 years later.

Word spread that Nutri-Serve was providing nutritional and tasty lunches. Overall the school district, the students, and parents and were happy. Fynan continued submitting proposals to other school districts, and by 2014 she had grown her client base to 79 districts, employing about 1,000 people.

“I feed 78,000 kids per day. I think I’m doing a good thing,” Fynan says.

Fynan is happy with her success, especially considering that she is competing with international companies, Aramark, Sodexo, and Chartwells, the company who had served some of the Princeton schools for the past five years. “Our success is based on our earned good reputation,” Fynan says. “And the company keeps its business focused. We don’t serve hotels, sports arenas or anything else. Our business is devoted solely to serving New Jersey school districts.”

Fynan grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where her father worked as a buildings and hardware broker. Her mother worked as the secretary of the business, and when she could find time, pursued her interests in sculpture and painting. She was a member of the Doylestown Art League for several years. Fynan says she gets her creativity from her mother and her entrepreneurial spirit from her father. Today Fynan and her husband Fred, a retired marine engineering officer, live in West Hampton and have a townhome in Avalon.

When not working, Fynan enjoys her second passion, embroidery. She is a master craftsman in surface embroidery with the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, and a member of Fiber Forum, a group of individuals who must qualify by having one’s work juried by the Guild. Her needlework has won awards and has been featured in magazines. Among her many projects, she is especially proud of her work titled “Symbols of New Jersey.”

If you ask Fynan what it takes to keep her passions alive and her business thriving, she will smile and say “integrity and persistence.”

Nutri-Serve Food Management Inc., 4431 Route 130 South, Burlington. 609-386-8686.

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