How to Use a Technology Innovation Grant for School Nutrition

school lunch
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Technology is an important part of the cafeteria at modern schools. 

“Everything is technology-driven,” says Colleen Asumendi Fillmore, director of Child Nutrition Programs for Idaho. 

Scanners are used when students go through the line and help sort which students are eligible for free or reduced meals and which pay full prices. Laptops and desktops are needed, plus there is data software and cloud-based menu software, all of which can help schools more efficiently feed students. 

However, for many schools paying for this type of tech is not in the budget. 

“These are things that the school districts, for the most part, really do not have money to get,” Fillmore says. 

That’s why she is excited that thirteen school districts and child care organizations across Idaho recently received more than $175,000 in federal Technology Innovation Grant (TIG)  funds. These funds will be distributed by the State Department of Education to help the districts purchase technology solutions for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program, and National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

“I just see this as being one of the most important grants that we have,” Fillmore says. “The technology has been so beneficial, not only to the Department of Ed, but mainly and more significantly, to the local school districts.” 

Tips For Applying  

Details on TIG funding can be found on the USDA’s grants website. It’s a noncompetitive grant, and each state has already been allotted its share of funds. 

“USDA does a really good job of outlining exactly what the state agency has to do for that grant,” Fillmore says. “As a state director in Idaho for child nutrition, they sent me the information, everything we needed to do to submit the grant, all the paperwork, and they sent the same thing to every state director throughout the country.” 

However, even though TIG funds are noncompetitive, state or school leaders still need to apply for the grant with care and think about how they want funding distributed. Idaho decision-makers opted to apply for flow-through grants that allowed various mini grants to be distributed to school districts and other organizations that needed the funding. 

“USDA really complimented Idaho for doing the flow through mini grants that went out to the individual sponsors,” Fillmore says. “When we wrote these grants, we did not write them in the way that the state agency would only get the money. We wanted it to be beneficial for the sponsors throughout the state.” 

A Vital Need  

Many students rely on school meals for their daily food and school kitchens across the country stayed open during the pandemic to offer meal pickups and deliveries. 

However, even as greater normalcy has resumed this year, challenges around school meals have continued. Some of these challenges are based on staffing: for example, in Philadelphia, an elementary school principal ordered pizza for 400 students after the cafeteria couldn’t be staffed. Other concerns have to do with diet and nutrition: children and teens have seen significant weight gain during the pandemic. 

Despite these issues, the leading priority for school food programs still remains making sure those who rely on a school meal continue to receive it, and that meals are there for those who find themselves in need for the first time due to pandemic disruptions. 

“There are families who have told us that they never thought that they would be challenged in being able to purchase food,” Fillmore says. The technology in these grants allows state, local, and school officials to better track where that need is and better make available services to students and their families. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.