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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

USDA will expand support for school food gardens

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson Just in time for the beginning of the school year, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a $1 million pilot program to develop and manage community gardens at high-poverty schools in five states. Funded through the National School Lunch Act, the program targets schools where 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

Public and not-for-profit organizations are encouraged to apply for grant funding for the pilot program. The deadline for applications is November 8, 2010.

The goal is to teach youth about agriculture production, diet and nutrition. Vilsack said the program will help kids and their families make healthier choices and encourage schools to prepare healthier meals by using the produce grown by students.

"Grass roots community gardens and agriculture programs have great promise for teaching our kids about food production and nutrition at the local level," Vilsack said. "Learning where food comes from and what fresh foods taste like, and the pride of growing and serving vegetables and fruits that grew through your own effort, are life-changing experiences."

The pilot comes as Congress considers improvements to the Child Nutrition Act, which includes school-based food and nutrition programs that feed 32 million children a day. Designed as anti-hunger initiatives, school breakfast and lunch programs have been criticized in recent years because the meals are heavy on processed foods, which have limited nutritional value and contribute to the nation's soaring childhood obesity rates.

Some school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, have attempted to provide healthier school fare through partnerships with local organic food growers. But school officials say it is too expensive to take such programs districtwide.

Grant applications for the USDA school garden pilot program may be submitted by email to: FY2010Prop_PeoplesGarden@fns.usda.gov or through www.grants.gov. The Request for Applications is available on-line at http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns/outreach/grants/garden.htm.