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Rutgers prepares to break ground on $55M food nutrition institute

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Rutgers University will soon break ground on a nearly 80,000 square-foot building in New Brunswick where its Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health will do basic nutrition research, study policy issues and create partnerships with food companies.

This week, Rutgers awarded a $34 million construction contract to Joseph A. Natoli Construction Co., in the Pine Brook section of Montville, to build a facility that is expected to open in 2015. The total construction project is expected to cost $55 million.

"We want to bring together scholars who will pursue interdisciplinary research; policymakers who will apply that research to real-world problems associated with food and health; and parents, their children, as well as Rutgers students, whose lives can benefit from wellness programs, health education and activities," said Robert M. Goodman, executive dean of the school of environmental and biological sciences, where the institute is based.

Institute director Peter Gillies said he is forging relationships with food industry leaders in New Jersey like Kim Fortunato, who directs the childhood obesity and hunger program at Campbell Soup. The food giant has committed $10 million over 10 years to reduce childhood obesity in Camden, where the company is based.

"When she talks about corporate social responsibly, she is really reducing that to practice," Gillies said. "I need our students to meet the Kim Fortunatos who work in the private sector and understand how they think and work, and the kinds of things they try to do."

Gillies, who worked in R&D at DuPont for 30 years before joining Rutgers three years ago to launch the institute, said, "We want to form very specific partnerships with the private sector that are absolutely essential for the food industry and for the university." He said the institute can help bridge a gap that he said seems to be widening between academia and the food industry over issues of nutrition, health and obesity.

Joel Cantor, director of the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers, said efforts to curb childhood obesity need "more collaboration across scientific disciplines … and the new Institute building will be a focal point for collaboration. The new facility will advance Rutgers leadership in this area, and enable us to attract increasingly scarce federal research grants."

The institute will have 25 principal investigators doing basic research. Gillies said a major focus will be molecular nutrition, which applies human genome research to cutting-edge nutrition research that seeks to personalize food and diet to a person's genetic makeup.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has made reducing childhood obesity a major top priority, gave Rutgers a $10 million grant toward construction of the institute building.

"The foundation has always said that it takes all sectors to come together to address the childhood obesity epidemic. That includes the food industry, beverage industry, media, public policy officials, educators — all sector of society, because this is a problem that affects all children in our society," said Dwayne Proctor, director of child obesity programs at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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