A new farm-to-school initiative, led by a UC Davis team, will help provide children in three Northern California school districts with the healthier school lunches called for in the recently passed federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis has begun working with school districts in Oakland, Winters and Redding on a participatory project to expand student access to local, seasonal fresh produce; provide local markets for specialty crop growers; and help integrate school food with nutrition education, school gardens and classroom lessons. The institute received a $497,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the program.

The initiative will help those districts improve the nutritional quality of cafeteria meals in order to promote health and address childhood obesity, central concerns of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

“Providing access to healthy school lunches is a vital part of childhood nutrition, and this program will also help kids develop lifelong healthy eating habits,” said project leader Gail Feenstra, the food systems coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

The UC Davis team will work with the three school districts to benefit more than 50,000 children by increasing the availability of seasonal, local fruits and vegetables in school meals. In about two-thirds of the schools in these districts, at least half of the students receive free and reduced-price lunches.

“Right now, only about four in 10 California kids eat five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day,” said Feenstra. “The child nutrition bill paves the way for more healthful school lunches, and our program will help connect schools with local farmers who grow the fruits and vegetables that are an important part of healthful meals.”

As part of the program, schools will work with community partners, UC Cooperative Extension and the UC Davis team to design menus that incorporate fresh, local produce. Ultimately, this project will develop farm-to-school methods that can be expanded and replicated by school districts statewide.

This fall, the USDA awarded $55 million in specialty-crops funding; California received nearly $17.3 million, more than any other state.

The UC Davis grant will also allow California specialty-crop producers to expand their market opportunities into farm-to-school programs. California is the nation’s largest producer of specialty crops, accounting for 40 percent of the nation’s specialty-crop production according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and dried fruits.

Founded in 2006, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis works to ensure access to healthy food and promote the vitality of agriculture today and for future generations, through integrative research, education, communication and early action on big, emerging issues. The institute includes the UC statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, the UC Davis Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility and the UC Davis Student Farm. More information from the institute is available online at: http://www.asi.ucdavis.edu.