USDA Spending Millions on 'Farm to School' Projects, Including Lentil Patties and School Gardens

By Susan Jones | November 14, 2012 | 11:49 AM EST

Side salads await the students of Eastside Elementary School in Clinton, Miss., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

( - At a time of rising debt and budget deficits, the Obama administration plans to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on the development of "fiber-rich lentil patties," school gardens, cooking classes, field trips to the farm, and dozens of other school nutrition projects.

As part of its healthy eating initiative, the administration on Wednesday announced it will spend $4.5 million "to connect school cafeterias with local agricultural producers." The taxpayer money will fund 68 projects in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

The first-ever USDA Farm to School grants are a form of federal stimulus.

According to USDA:

-- 25 projects will create jobs by "hiring new farm to school coordinators," and 43 projects will support and maintain existing staff.

-- 44 projects involve the development of new products and menu items, such as "protein and fiber rich lentil patties."

-- More than 50 projects support "hands-on learning activities," such as field trips to farms, cooking classes, and the creation of school gardens.

-- An estimated 47 projects will develop new partnerships by educating farmers and ranchers new to the school food market.

-- Other funded projects, such as Weld County School District 6 in Greeley, Colo., will expand kitchen facilities to serve local products year-round through processing and freezing techniques.

"When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities," Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said."Evidence also suggests that when kids understand more about where food comes from and how it is produced, they are more likely to make healthy eating choices."

Merrigan said the grants will serve more than 3,200 schools and 1.75 million students, nearly half of whom live in rural communities.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 amended the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) to establish a Farm to School program to improve access to locally grown and produced foods.

The Farm to School grants are administered by USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.