ISBE offering $7.3M in school grants to buy local food

Lindsay Blough, center, with the Illinois State Board of Education child nutrition programs, explains new grants for local food purchases during a panel discussion at the Everything Local Conference, Springfield. Districts may apply for the grants to buy and serve local foods in students’ meals. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Illinois schools soon may apply for $7.3 million in grants to buy local food for students’ meals, Lindsay Blough with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) child nutrition programs reported during the recent Everything Local Conference.

Blough, who appeared with a panel of state and federal agency representatives, said ISBE will notify districts about the available funding and how to apply.

“We are planning on having the funds available to schools to utilize starting in August. The application process (for districts) will be fairly simple,” Blough told FarmWeek. She anticipated training and other resources for schools will be available toward the end of the current school year and during the summer.

The Local Food in School Cooperative Agreement (LFS) is funded through USDA. Last March, USDA announced states could apply for $200 million nationwide to buy local food for school meal programs.

LFS defines local food as foods raised, produced, aggregated, stored, processed and distributed in the locality or region where the final product is marketed to consumers. The distance the product travels between the farm/ranch where it originated and the point of sale to an end consumer is within a state or a maximum 400 miles.

Blough explained any school in the national school lunch or school breakfast program is eligible to apply for an LFS grant. “They may be public, private or charter. Even residential childcare institutions are eligible for these funds because they’re in the national school lunch program,” she added.

ISBE is learning about potential barriers that might discourage schools from applying for grants. “Some (barriers) will be more challenging than others,” she said. For example, a district’s food service staff may need to become familiar with local foods. ISBE may partner with other organizations to help train school staff in fresh produce handling, preparation and other training. “We know that’s a barrier, but we also feel like through education and training could be an easy one to overcome,” she added.

She noted schools may also use the grants to buy minimally processed local products, such as food that is chopped or frozen. But that product must be local, Blough emphasized.

“The schools will be required to follow all the federal procurement requirements,” she said. “If the total purchase is under $10,000 that’s considered a micro purchase, the school then has the ability to select who they purchase from. If it’s over $10,000, then it goes into a different procurement method, and they have to get three bids and go with lowest bid.”

Blough advised farmers interested in working with area districts to wait until the end of the school year.

“I would encourage farmers to reach out to schools in their local area,” she said. “If you haven’t heard from a school, reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, I heard there are these funds. I didn’t know if you applied for them, but if you did, we have this, this and this local (food) and would love to work with you.’”