Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled two new grant opportunities plus a training and technical assistance partnership to help schools continue to invest in nutritious school meals during a visit to the Annandale (Va.) Terrace Elementary School on Oct. 11. Coming during National School Lunch Week and National Farm to School Month, the moves Vilsack announced are designed to help to reach the goals released in conjunction with last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health to increase access to healthy foods for students at schools across the country.
First of all, between Oct.11, 2023 and Jan.12, 2024, USDA will be accepting applications for the next round of USDA Farm to School Grants, while applications for the School Food Systems Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants will open in November 2023. As the second phase of USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, these sub-grants will fund projects promoting innovation in the school meals marketplace through collaboration between schools’ food producers and suppliers, including local producers and small and disadvantaged businesses.
Urban School Food Alliance partnership
In addition, USDA is partnering with the Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) to provide trainings and tools to school districts that it says will help them purchase high quality foods while keeping costs low. In recent years schools have faced challenges in obtaining healthy foods consistently, efficiently and effectively, and this initiative is designed to support schools with procurement, including the development of tools and training.
The USFA currently consists of 18 large school districts that share best practices about purchasing school foods, based on their experiences and procurement data they have gathered and analyzed beginning in the 2017-18 school year. It has existing trainings and resources they will begin sharing with school districts immediately, and the development of new tools and the advisory group are both expected to begin in early 2024.
Through its new partnership agreement with USDA, the USFA will develop new tools to educate school districts on best practices for purchasing school foods, organize an advisory group of school nutrition stakeholders to create an action plan that will address challenges with school food procurement through the development of targeted trainings and resources, and develop an interactive bid template that will help standardize procurement processes in school nutrition.
"The Urban School Food Alliance appreciates the opportunity to work with USDA to improve the school food procurement process for all stakeholders,” said Dr. Katie Wilson, USFA’s executive director. “With procurement practices laying the foundation for obtaining fresh, healthy food served throughout our nation's schools, we look forward to developing and implementing new tools to push for a more efficient and sustainable food system that includes supporting local economies.”
School Food Systems Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants
Two of the four organizations leading the School Food Systems Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants will open applications in November 2023. They include Supporting Community Agriculture & Local Education Systems (SCALES), led by Boise State University, that will encourage innovative partnerships between schools and producers, growers, and processors to nourish students through transformation of the school food system; and Partnerships for Local Agriculture & Nutrition Transformation in Schools (PLANTS), led by the Chef Ann Foundation, which will support regional efforts to nourish students, increase equity, foster a resilient supply chain, and create scalable and sustainable change for school districts across the country.
Applications for sub-grants managed by two other organizations—Full Plates Full Potential and Illinois Public Health Institute—will open in early 2024.
Collectively, the four organizations were awarded $50 million to administer these sub-grants. The grants will support collaboration between school districts, food producers, suppliers, distributors, and/or community partners to stimulate a resilient, equitable, and nutritious school food system.
Eligible organizations are encouraged to check the USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives website for updates and sign up for bi-monthly newsletter at the bottom right of the USDA Team Nutrition website.
Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program
The Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program helps child nutrition programs incorporate local foods into school breakfast and lunch, summer meals and meals served at child care centers. It offers a variety of resources, from research, technical assistance, and grants to help build and grow farm to school programs.
Applications for Fiscal Year 2024 Patrick Leahy Farm to School Grant Program will be open through Jan. 12, 2024. To receive updates about the grants application and other farm to school news, subscribe to The Dirt, program’s monthly e-newsletter.
Since the Farm to School Grant program began in 2013, USDA has awarded a total of $84 million in grants to projects across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, which have reached over 28 million students in more than 63,000 schools. The Department is expected to award at least $10 million in grants in 2024.
In addition, the Farm to School Program has also launched the 2023 Farm to School Census, a periodic survey of school districts’ participation in local procurement and agricultural education activities. The Census is designed to be the most comprehensive survey of farm to school activity in the United States and USDA encourages all school districts to complete the survey to build an accurate picture of farm to school activity across the nation.
“USDA is committed to giving students the nutrition they need to reach their full potential by empowering schools to continue serving delicious, healthy meals,” Vilsack stated. “There’s no better time to announce these new efforts to support schools than during National School Lunch Week and Farm to School Month, as we acknowledge the critical role that school meals play in a child’s life. The Biden-Harris Administration will continue doing everything we can to ensure schools have the tools they need to keep serving the highest quality meals to kids across America.”