Even with meal reimbursements and other sources of funding, school foodservice programs can find themselves in a tough financial spot. To make important program upgrades, grants are the variable that many foodservice directors can’t afford to leave out of the equation.
Ann Cooper, food services director and chef at 31,000-student Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colo., has been no stranger to winning competitive grants during her 10 years with the district. She’s also become a substantial grantor in her own right as founder of the Chef Ann Foundation, which gives out award packages valued at up to $250,000. Several of the foundation’s programs even help nutrition directors apply for funding more effectively.
And across the country, enterprising FSDs such as Chris Parker and Gloria James network like mad to secure grants big and small. Parker, food service director for 600-student West River Modified Union Education District in southern Vermont, recently snagged a $2,000 salad bar, which he promptly used as the jumping-off point for a cafeteria’s industrial-chic makeover.
James, director of child nutrition for the similarly sized Porter Consolidated Schools in Porter, Okla., recently won a $33,905 Farm to School Planning Grant from the USDA—one of just 18 in the nation. She is using it to create a school garden with prominent Native American elements. “We may be a small, rural school, but I want our kids to have the best,” she says.
All three have a passion for sourcing more high-quality food from local farmers, but they are also committed to making things happen, even when funding takes real creativity. Here, Cooper, Parker and James offer their fund-winning strategies.
Collect the right numbers.
Don’t skip portions of an application, be tempted to fudge numbers or fill in rough estimates. It often takes a year or two of learning how it all works and tracking revenues and expenditures precisely before you can apply most successfully, Cooper says. The Chef Ann Foundation asks for spreadsheets to supplement applications—and double-checks the figures listed.
Get others on board.
Along with students and employees, stakeholders such as teachers, administrators and the school board need to support the changes and upgrades you’re making. James sought out teachers who would help sustain a school garden, the focus of her USDA award, as well as partners at the tribal, county and university levels who could help make it happen. They committed to things like substantial travel, ongoing visits, taste tests and intensive training. “You need to get buy-in,” she says.
James, who has experience in banking, including in loan collection, follows up to make sure everyone involved fulfills their responsibilities. She then approaches partners to see whom they might know or recommend for the next initiative. She scours the state, and even if a person or organization can’t help on a specific project, she asks them to consider supporting a different rural school.
Network, network, network.
Even the grocery store can be a smart place to tell people, whether they’re retailers or just community members, about the great things your program is doing. Parker recently chatted with a man who turned out to be a local United Way board member—and who urged Parker to apply for a $10,000 grant, saying he’d be a shoo-in.
“I run my mouth all day long,” Parker jokes. He adds: “You have to have a strong network of people who are going to point you in the right direction. If you have a need, chances are someone in your area has had that same need and has found a way.”
Don’t be afraid to start small.
It’s not just the big foundations and federal departments that can help. Boulder Valley has received modest awards from philanthropic groups, such as local Rotary Clubs, and even trash haulers, who often support cafeteria waste reduction. “Dollars are still made out of dimes,” Cooper says.
Tailor your application to the grant.
Strive for a mix of hard statistics and personal anecdotes. Cite specific quantities, percentages and quotes (“Our students are eating x amount of y ingredient today,” for example, or “When we serve scratch-cooked meals, it helps increase participation by x”). “[Providing] all stats can be very dry, but all stories without stats can be too fluffy,” Cooper says.
And although you may be tempted to use key stats over and over, think twice about their applicability to each grant. “You really need to tell the story you believe is going to touch the grantor,” Cooper says. “Focus on what they’re looking for, not just copy-paste from one application to the next.”
Apps with appeal
So you’re all over the web, applying for the usual state and federal awards. What’s new and next for 2020?
Apply to every newsletter you can, starting with the School Nutrition Association, which offers grants frequently. Follow brands, foundations and other potential grantors on Twitter and beyond.
Seek unconventional sources.
Realizing that healthier eating aids their business, many health insurance companies have become players in the school food space. Scope the major insurers in your state to see what funding might be available.
If they fit the mission of the grant, videos that show the kitchen you’re currently working with—or the passion your students and employees bring—can make you stand out from the crowd.