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Federal grants aim to bring local food to school tables

USDA announces new funding that aims to provide fresh, healthy food for children in schools across America, and to bolster and sustain local farmers and ranchers. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition comments on new Farm to School programs.

The USDA has announced new funding that aims to provide fresh, healthy food for children in schools across America, and to bolster and sustain local farmers and ranchers.

The agency said that $3.5 million in new funding will be available to help local school districts organize and implement new Farm to School programs. Those critical initiatives seek to educate children about where their food comes from and improve the quality of school meals. At the same time, they also improve local and regional food systems and create new markets for local food producers.

“The local and regional food sector of agriculture is growing rapidly, as are Farm to School initiatives,” said Helen Dombalis, a Policy Associate for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “While there is now at least one Farm to School program operating in each state, there is lots of work to be done to deepen and extend these programs, especially in more disadvantaged communities. The new Farm to School Grant program is a critical step in revitalizing school meals and engaging children in nutrition education.”

The new competitive Farm to School Grants program was created in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, also known as the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. NSAC, together with the National Farm to School Network and Community Food Security Coalition, worked for inclusion of the Farm to School program in that legislation, working with many senators and representatives led by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt.

Schools interested in seeking funding for the first round of Farm to School Grants can obtain an USDA Request for Application. Proposals are due by June 15.

Grant Program Details

In accordance with the legislation, USDA said it will prioritize projects that serve school districts and schools that have high free and reduced price meal enrollment. Additionally, the agency indicated it will be interested in innovative local and regional food procurement strategies. USDA also said it encourages eligible entities to submit “cluster” applications where a USDA investment in, for example, one school district working in concert with several additional districts, might benefit a wider geographic area than funding to any one entity.

Grant applicants must provide at least 25 percent of the costs of the grant project from non-federal sources.

There will be two kinds of awards, planning and implementation. Planning grants will range from $20,000 to $45,000 and comprise 25 percent of total awards.  These awards are intended to help school districts and schools organize and structure Farm to School activities. Implementation grants, accounting for 75 percent of total awards, will range from $65,000 to $100,000. School districts, schools, state and local agencies, Indian tribal organizations, agricultural producers or groups of agricultural producers, and non-profit entities may use these awards to further develop existing Farm to School programs.

2012 farm bill

In addition to its work with USDA on implementation of the new Farm to School Grant program, NSAC is also engaged in ongoing Farm to School advocacy on Capitol Hill. NSAC is calling on Congress to include legislative proposals from the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, introduced by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, in the new farm bill.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is planning to mark-up its version of the farm bill sometime in the next two weeks, with the House Agriculture Committee to follow this summer.  The Farm to School proposals in the Brown-Pingree bill would improve schools’ purchasing power for foods grown and raised locally. The proposal would give school districts more flexibility in their use of federal dollars for school food procurement.

This is the obvious next step beyond the Farm to School Grant program. Once Farm to School programs are established, means must be found to use existing sources of federal funding for school food procurement to purchase more from local farmers. The dual goal remains the same -- improving the health of American schoolchildren while creating new markets and income opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

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