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Boise State receives largest single sponsored project award to support innovation in school food systems

Boise State University received $16.1 million – its largest single sponsored project award in university history – from the United States Department of Agriculture to help increase the amount of food that is sourced locally by school districts.

Boise State University’s Center for School and Community Partnerships was selected by the United States Department of Agriculture as one of four teams to collaborate on the School Food Systems Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants Initiative. This award of $16.1 million will support Project SCALES (Supporting Community Agriculture and Local Education Systems), a large sub-grant initiative with school nutrition programs. The overall goal is to catalyze locally developed innovations and partnerships that ensure a resilient and equitable school food system across the nation.

“Our faculty are conducting work that matters to Idaho and the world. This project will benefit children, families and communities across the country, as well as important industries,” said Boise State President Marlene Tromp. “We are proud that Dr. Turner’s innovative and impactful scholarship and service have won such significant support, and we aim to engage in projects like this that make a difference in real people’s lives.”

College of Education professor Lindsey Turner is the director of the project. She directs the Center for School and Community Partnerships, which has a mission of building partnerships to support students, educators, families and communities across Idaho and beyond. Her team will use implementation science – the systematic study of how to accelerate the use of best-practices – to support school districts as they engage in innovative projects and partnerships to increase the amount of school food that is sourced locally.

“Studying school nutrition has been my passion for more than 20 years and it is such an honor to lead this initiative in partnership with USDA, my research collaborators, and our practice partners,” said Turner. “During the pandemic we saw that so many school nutrition directors worked hard and innovated rapidly to address hunger in their communities. They were particularly effective when they had flexibility to be innovative, and had the resources and support they needed. Learning from that work, this initiative will provide both support and flexibility to districts as they find innovative ways to partner with growers and producers to keep students well-nourished.”

“Boise State researchers are dedicated to utilizing use-inspired approaches that involve working closely with stakeholders to identify significant issues and generate pragmatic solutions,” said Nancy Glenn, vice president for research and economic development. “This is a great example of how we are leveraging external funding to help improve the health of rural communities.”

Turner’s team proposed a project that will provide grant funding and expert technical assistance to 70 school districts nationwide as part of USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative. The project’s key partner is LunchAssist, an organization that provides expert technical assistance to school nutrition professionals and is led by award-winning former school nutrition professionals. The Project SCALES team also includes Turner’s longtime collaborators, Erin Hager at Johns Hopkins University, and Hannah Lane at Duke University. Together, they have studied how the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was implemented and resulted in healthier meals for millions of students. With this new project, they will recruit and support two cohorts of school districts that will receive sub-grants to conduct local projects focused on building innovative cross-sector partnerships. Each school district sub-grantee will participate in regular monthly activities with LunchAssist to support implementation.

The first cohort of 35 school districts (2024-2026) will be from rural communities – a setting with unique challenges in food access. The second cohort of 35 school districts (2026 to 2028) will be from rural, suburban or urban areas. School districts will also collaborate with the Project SCALES team to evaluate progress and outcomes such as the impact on local suppliers and partners, and how much local food is being used in school meal programs.

The project is guided by consultants, an expert advisory board with representatives from large national organizations and key dissemination partners such as the National Farm to School Network, which will help to ensure that knowledge about effective innovations will be shared widely.

“With this project, Dr. Turner and her team will be doing crucial work to improve nutrition security, which will help students and schools, and will serve as an example for the rest of the country,” said James Satterfield, dean of the College of Education.