USDA will invest $5 million annually to help bring local foods to cafeterias
By MATTHEW WEAVER
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- Fourth-grader Hailey Pierce ran ahead of her friends in line for breakfast at Skyway Elementary to see if strawberries were on the fruit tray.
They were, and she darted back in line happily to wait her turn.
Even more food options will be available in school meals if the USDA has its way. The agency announced it will invest $5 million per year in farm to school programs, beginning in October.
The Farm to School Grant Program is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and authorizes USDA to help schools buy food directly from producers.
USDA expects to award up to $3.5 million in grants the first year. The remaining $1.5 million will support training, technical assistance, administrative costs or additional grants.
Anupama Joshi, executive director of the National Farm to School Network in Chicago, said the program is a good start.
It's a good opportunity for schools to gain funds to start buying local food, she said.
"Often we find that once schools get started, they find support within the community to sustain the program," Joshi said.
Joshi believes that once farmers figure out how to work with schools, they can begin to sell to other institutional markets, such as colleges, hospitals, corporate cafeterias or prisons.
Ed Ducar, nutrition services director for the Coeur d'Alene School District in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, said he will consider applying for the grant.
Ducar encourages building relationships between farmers and schools, but farmers need to let school districts know what they have to offer.
"If you have produce and you're not telling anybody about it, how do they know?" he said.
Ducar's district already works with farmers around the region to supply produce whenever possible.
He said schools also use the food to educate, having students husk corn, which is then served the next day in the kitchen.
Ducar puts an emphasis on food safety, quality and price, noting the short growing season doesn't exactly match the school year.
"If we were in school during the summer, then it would be that much easier," he said.
The biggest factor is delivery and ensuring product is available, Ducar said.
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the program helps to get students interested in agriculture and where their food comes from.