Farm to school food programs are set to receive a boost this October in the form of $3.5 million in federal grant money.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced Tuesday that the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is now accepting applications for a series of grants – each one to be no more than  $100,000 – to fund programs that bring locally produced foods to school cafeterias.
kids-vegetables-350.jpgThe money was earmarked by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. The act aims to improve child nutrition nationwide in order to combat the dual problems of overweight and obesity and food insecurity. In the United States, approximately 17 percent of children ages 2-19 are obese and, according to Merrigan, 18 million are food insecure, meaning they do not always know where their next meal will come from.

“We know for some many children school meals are the only real meal they get in the day so it’s very important that these meals be top notch and farm to school can play a very important role there,” said Merrigan at Tuesday’s press conference.

One way HHFKA hopes to promote child nutrition is by teaching kids to appreciate healthy foods early on, says Merrigan.  Farm to school helps achieve this goal by giving children a connection to the food they eat and sometimes even a chance to meet the farmer who produced it.  

“The connection to health is…really trying to get kids excited about food coming direct into the cafeteria, rejoicing in the taste and the quality of that food,” said Merrigan. “As we struggle with obesity and associated diet-related diseases, farm to school programs give us one important tool to help our kids make lifelong healthy eating choices.”

The Deputy Secretary emphasized that although fruits and vegetables are the foods most commonly associated with farm to school programs, the scope of agricultural products that can be served in schools extends far beyond this category.

“There are great opportunities of for local cheese, local dairy and all sorts of locally grown grains, locally produced meat and poultry…” she said.

Merrigan noted that food safety will be an important component of farm to school programs. “Farmers that are vending in schools have to be GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) certified,” she explained.

But while GAPs certification is standard for larger growers with a national market, smaller producers do not always have such systems in place, as they can be costly and time-consuming to implement.

That is why USDA is supporting programs that help small and mid-sized farms develop GAPs plans, says Merrigan.

Among these are the Produce Safety University – a training course run by Cornell University Extension that educates farmers and state health agents about sanitary growing practices and preps them to teach this information in their communities – and – an organization that generates a full food safety plan for farmers after they enter information about their operation.

With the help of programs like this, Merrigan says, small- and mid-sized farmers will be able to “get into the GAPs game,”  and as a result get into the farm to school game.

“One of the things you’ll see in the request for applications is a direct call-out using food safety as an example of the kinds of activities that we would expect grantees to [request funds] for because we do know it’s an issue that comes up with food service directors as they’re thinking about farm to school programs,” said Deborah Kane, the new National Director of the USDA Farm to School Program, at the press conference.

USDA is accepting farm to school grant applications through June 15, 2012 with a suggested due date of May 18 for letters of intent.

“The idea is that people are going to get their applications in before the school year ends,” Merrigan explained. This way, although the money does not become available until October, school communities have a chance to come together to apply before summer vacation.

Recipients of the newly allocated funds will receive one of two types of grants. Planning grants will go to schools just starting to develop farm to school programs and will account for 25 percent of the allotted money. The other 75 percent will go to implementation grants for schools or other organizations involved in farm-to-school programs.

In total, HHFKA allows for $5 million to be spent in support of farm to school programs. The remaining $1.5 million is being reserved by USDA for technical assistance to the programs.

USDA is anticipating a large number of applicants for the grants.

“My expectation is that I think we’ll be oversubscribed,” said Merrigan. “I think this is very popular.”

Kane expressed enthusiasm about upcoming grant submissions.

“I expect to be surprised by the innovative [procurement] strategies,” she said at the press conference. “We’re really looking forward to learning along with the grantees and expect we’ll see quite a lot of interesting work out there.”

For more information on how to apply, view the request for applications.