Healthy meals: Schools now have access to $50 million for nutrition

Grant funds will help K-12 leaders procure a wider variety of healthy, appealing meals while promoting innovation by food suppliers.

Schools now have a $50 million incentive to work with the food industry. That’s the amount in grant funds K-12 leaders and their partners can now secure to develop more nutritious and appetizing meals for students while bolstering the supply chain for their nutrition programs.

The opening of the grant application period marks the second phase of the USDA’s $100 million Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative for schools. “For children to reach their full academic potential, they must build healthy eating habits, and the USDA recognizes the importance of private sector partnership in making this happen,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The “School Food System Transformation Challenge” funds will be distributed by four non-governmental organizations still to be selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The grants should help school leaders procure a wider variety of healthy, appealing meals while promoting innovation by food suppliers, including local producers and smaller and disadvantaged businesses. The request for applications is open through Feb. 1, 2023.

The first phase of the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, launched in September, sought non-governmental organizations to manage grants of up to $150,000 each to small and rural school districts. On a wider scale, serving healthy and free school meals to all students is a key pillar of the Biden-Harris Administration’s effort to tackle child hunger.

(U.S. Department of Agriculture)
(U.S. Department of Agriculture)

School meal programs have not yet reached their potential to improve children’s health or reduce hunger, the administration says. A “healthy meals for all” approach can transform school meal programs into an integral part of the school day to “engage children around healthy food,” says the White House’s new National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. School meal programs currently feed about 30 million children and the administration intends to work with Congress to give 9 million more children access to free school meals by 2032. To get closer to its goal of “healthy meals for all,” the administration plans to help schools:

  1. Cook more meals from scratch by funding training and equipment purchases.
  2. Buy more local and regional food.
  3. Increase investment in the school nutrition workforce.
  4. Expand nutrition education for children.

Free school meals and physical activity

Food insecurity worsens during the summer as some students also gain more weight when they don’t eat at school—and both issues disproportionately impact Black and Latino children and kids in less affluent families. The Biden Administration hopes to expand COVID-era summer nutrition programs—also known as Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer—to feed children throughout the calendar year, the Hunger and Nutrition plan says.

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Because fewer than one-quarter of children ages 6-17 get the recommended amount of exercise, the overall initiative also aims to promote in- and out-of-school physical activity, which has also proven to improve academic performance. The Department of Education, through its Engage Every Student Initiative, will help educational organizations get more students involved in physical fitness during the summer and in after-school programs.

The administration is also calling on state governments to give children and families free passes to state parks and on local governments to work with the private sector and nonprofits to create shared-use agreements that grant schools access to open spaces, sports facilities, and fields.

“School meals programs are on the frontline of providing critical nutrition to millions of children,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under-secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “These grants are intended to spark innovation in the school food marketplace and build a more equitable and resilient food system that serves all children well.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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