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Four School Districts Receive National Awards for Trailblazing, Innovative Improvements to School Meals

Awards are part of larger USDA effort to advance healthy school meals

Press Release
Release No.
USDA No. 0041.24
Contact: FNS Press Team

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2024 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that four school districts in Alaska, Iowa, Maine, and Ohio received awards for their trailblazing and innovative efforts to improve the nutritional quality of meals for their students. This announcement was made in front of nearly 850 school nutrition professionals at the School Nutrition Association Legislative Action Conference during National School Breakfast Week.

These school districts are the first winners of Healthy Meals Incentives Recognition Awards, jointly created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Action for Healthy Kids as part of USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, also known as HMI. These awards celebrate school districts who embrace opportunities to take their school meals to the next level. HMI is one of several ways that the Biden-Harris Administration is supporting schools to provide kids with nutritious meals that support their health and well-being.

“For many children, school meals are the healthiest, most nutritious meals in their day-to-day lives,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Investing in innovative, high quality school meals that students enjoy is one of many actions the Biden-Harris Administration is taking to improve nutrition for young Americans. At USDA, we are proud to recognize the schools that are going the extra mile in providing nutritious meals for students and helping them reach their fullest potential.”

The four awardees—Clear Lake Community School District in Iowa; Sandy Valley Local School District in Magnolia, Ohio; Petersburg School District in Alaska; and Regional School Unit 89 in Stacyville, Maine—along with 260 other small and/or rural school districts also received HMI grants last summer to enhance the nutritional quality of their school meals.

“Action for Healthy Kids would like to congratulate Clear Lake Community School District, Sandy Valley School District, Petersburg School District, and Regional School Unit 89 on the progress they’ve made in their nutrition programs this year,” said Rob Bisceglie, CEO of Action for Healthy Kids. “We applaud the staff who have worked hard to prepare fresh, appealing and delicious meals for their students.”

Learn About the Awardees

Clear Lake Community School District (Iowa) is recognized as a “Lunch Trailblazer” for reducing sodium in their menu items through creative strategies such as sourcing low- or no-sodium products, increasing the use of fresh local foods, and enhancing flavors with custom spice blends. “We’ve been hosting monthly taste tests for our students, which feature locally grown foods,” said Julie Udelhofen, food service director, Clear Lake Community School District. “These events are a wonderful opportunity to introduce our students to new produce items as well as show our students that their opinions matter to us.”

Sandy Valley Local School District (Ohio) is recognized as a “Lunch Trailblazer” for successfully lowering sodium in school lunches by procuring fresh and/or frozen meat and produce and selecting lower sodium foods for menu items. Their Student Council and Social Justice teams act as an advisory board by evaluating new school menu items and gathering feedback from their peers. The school district also conducts district-wide taste tests to gauge student interest in different scratch cooking options. “We are trying to incorporate more scratch cooking into [our] menus” says Tina Kindelberger, food service director at Sandy Valley Local School District. “Students have loved some of our new reduced sodium menu items, including the chicken queso chowder and buffalo chicken melt.”

Petersburg School District (Alaska) is receiving the “Innovation in the Preparation of School Meals” award for their commitment to creating scratch and semi-scratch foods that incorporate local and culturally relevant ingredients like moose meat, carrots, herring eggs, and kale. “We recently had the Petersburg Indian Association come into the culinary classes to help the students prepare moose roasts and a moose stock gravy,” says Carlee Johnson McIntosh, food service director, Petersburg School District. “Then, we had a lunch taste testing of the moose roasts and moose gravy for our students.”

Regional School Unit 89 (Maine) is receiving the “Innovation in Preparation of School Meals” award for incorporating more scratch cooking into menu items, such as homemade sub rolls using their oatmeal bread recipe, homemade croutons, pickles and roasted chickpeas. RSU 89 has also partnered with local farm Keep Ridge Farm in Benedicta to source produce like squash, onion, eggs, carrots and kale. They host monthly taste tests allowing the student body to determine what the next new menu item will be. “At our annual Thanksgiving meal, we featured Keep Ridge Farm roasted squash, local farmer Steve Crouse’s potatoes that we boiled and mashed, and turkey from USDA Foods in our homemade gravy and homemade stuffing,” said Denise Tapley Proctor, food service director at RSU 89. “The meal was well received by the community, and the reactions of our kids make us love the change in direction our school is making to more scratch cooking.”

For more information about the awardees, please visit the HMI Awardee Spotlight webpage.

Additional Background

These awards spotlight innovative practices, student and community engagement activities, and strategies schools have used to provide meals that are consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Schools can apply for awards in a range of categories that recognize their efforts to reduce sodium and added sugars in school meals, provide nutrition education, and involve students and families in meal planning.

The Recognition Awards application is available on the HMI website. USDA and Action for Healthy Kids recently streamlined the application process to make it easier for school nutrition professionals to apply. School districts in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the United States Virgin Islands are eligible to apply for the Recognition Awards if they participate in the National School Lunch Program and/or School Breakfast Program. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis over a two-year period ending June 30, 2025.

School districts and others interested in learning more can join an HMI Recognition Awards Informational Webinar on Wednesday, March 6, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

USDA established the HMI Initiative as part of its commitment to investing in the future of our nation’s children. This initiative empowers schools to continue serving delicious, healthy meals, while giving students the critical nutrition they need to grow, thrive, and reach their full potential. The HMI initiative is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s actions toward implementing the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

“We’re seeing incredible efforts and innovative accomplishments by school nutrition professionals, as they provide their students with healthy, nutritious meals,” said USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long. “The benefits of school meals to children are undeniable, and we are committed to doing our part to support school meal programs nationwide.”

About USDA

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit

About Action for Healthy Kids

Action for Healthy Kids is dedicated to improving children’s health and well-being by bringing together and mobilizing educators, families, and other key stakeholders to help children lead healthy lives. Through its core programming and family-school partnerships, Action for Healthy Kids has impacted more than 20 million children in 55,000 schools nationwide to address systemic challenges in underserved communities. To learn more about its growing network of volunteers and champions, visit:


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Page updated: March 04, 2024