Frequently Asked Questions

Here you will find answers to frequently asked questions from applicants of the Lake Michigan School Food System Innovation Hub grants. This page is regularly updated, so please check back for more information.

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Choose a link below to find questions organized by topic.
Last updated March 8, 2024.

General Inquiry
Eligibility
Programmatic Requirements
Support Offered
Timeline
Allowable Expenses
Compliance
Administration
Definitions

General INQUIRY

Is this grant being launched only in the Lake Michigan region (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana), or is it being rolled out across the nation at the same time?

The Lake Michigan School Food System Innovation Hub program is administered by the Illinois Public Health Institute and serves Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana exclusively. It’s one of four cooperative agreements that are a part of the USDA School Food System Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants. Two projects, Boise State University’s Supporting Community Agriculture and Local Education Systems Sub-Grants (SCALES) and Chef Ann Foundation’s Partnerships for Local Agriculture & Nutrition Transformation in Schools (PLANTS), are national in scope.

How many awards will there be this cycle?

  • At least two Spark Awards and at least one Innovation Collaborative Award will be awarded per state.
  • The total number of awards this cycle depends on the applications we receive.
  • We plan to award approximately 8 – 50 Spark Awards and 11 Innovation Collaborative Awards per cycle.

How can a farm, which has not been involved with schools and institutions, best enter into the space?

Please connect with your State Lead at innovateschoolfood.org/connect! State Leads are available to help form and manage partnerships, among other supports.

Please provide examples of how the grant could be used so folks’ gears start turning!

Please visit our Inspiration for Projects and Ideas to Consider webpages at innovateschoolfood.org/inspiration-for-projects and innovateschoolfood.org/ideas-to-consider!

Is the pre-screening step required?

No, the pre-screening step is completely optional. All applications must be received by April 30, 2024, 11:59 pm CST, to be eligible for review.

Is there an upper limit on how many letters of support in one application?

No. They can submit as many as they like. Salesforce’s file limit is 25, but they could combine files into one attachment if they have more than 25 attachments planned.

Can applicants make additional changes after they submitted for pre-screening?

Only applications that need updates will be re-opened. Applications that are complete will be left closed.

Is there a way to get a printout an application?

Please use Ctrl+P on your device to “print” your application in a PDF format should you wish to review it that way. Once you select submit, you will be able to review the submitted application (you just won’t be able to make any changes to it). It will Print PDF per tab. If you wish to create a PDF for more than one tab you will need to repeat the process on each tab.

Eligibility

May I apply for an award if I do not live in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and/or Indiana?


All applicants should be involved in the school food system, and all projects must be intended to benefit a school, school district, or group of schools in the Lake Michigan region (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and/or Indiana). While residency in one of the four states is not required, projects will receive up to two points if they align with the goal of increasing the number of local food businesses engaged in the Lake Michigan school food system. Local food is defined as food grown and processed in the Lake Michigan region.

Does the reach of this project include Southern Indiana?

Yes, all of Indiana is included.

Can I apply for both Spark and Innovation Collaborative Awards?

Not at the same time. Applicants may apply for multiple, non-overlapping rounds of Innovation Hub funding.

Can a for-profit entity be a grant partner?

Yes! Several entities listed in the Eligibility section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications, including farmers, food producers, food suppliers, and more may be for-profit organizations. Any person or organization that will receive grant funds should be listed in the budget. Any partner not receiving funding does not have to be listed in the budget but can be listed in the Project Team section of the application.

Is there a requirement to have a school/district as lead applicant or partner?

No. All projects must be intended to benefit at least one school in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Indiana. All applications without a school partner on the project team should include a letter of support from a school, school district, or group of schools that shows the school’s (or schools’) interest in the project and willingness to support efforts to respond to students’ dietary, cultural and religious needs and preferences. Please see the Eligibility section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information. 

Are charter schools eligible as long as they participate in the National School Lunch Program?

Yes! Schools and School Districts, including nonprofit private and charter schools, which operate the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and/or School Breakfast Program (SBP) are eligible to apply. Please see the Eligibility section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information. 

Are local health departments eligible for funding?

Yes. Please see the Eligibility section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information.

Are early care and education facilities eligible to apply?

Yes, although an early care and education facility would not be considered a school. As such, the project would also need to include a letter of support from a school, school district, or group of schools that shows the school’s (or schools’) interest in the project and willingness to support efforts to respond to students’ dietary, cultural and religious needs and preferences.  

Does a farmer collaborative have to be a formal nonprofit?

Organizations do not have to be a formal nonprofit to be eligible. However, formal nonprofits may more readily comply with the requirements to be a Lead Applicant. Please review Appendix C: Lead Applicant Guidance in the Spark Award and Innovation Collaborative Award Requests for Applications for more information.

Are local governments that operate a farmers market/food hub eligible?

Yes, local governments are eligible. Please see the Eligibility section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative request for applications for more information.

Are applicants who receive Spark Awards eligible for Innovation Collaboration Awards?

Applicants may be awarded more than one, non-overlapping Innovation Hub Award. As such, applicants may receive a Spark Award and then apply for the second round of our Innovation Collaborative Awards.

Can I have multiple sources of USDA funding?

  • Yes, for different projects! Your organization cannot be awarded two sources of USDA funding for the same project or scope of work.
  • Your organization cannot have two Innovation Hub (e.g., Spark and Innovation Collaborative) awards at the same time.
  • Your organization cannot be the lead awardee for both Innovation Hub and SCALES (Supporting Community Agriculture and Local Education Systems) or PLANTS (Partnerships for Local Agriculture and Nutrition Transformation in Schools) grants.
  • Your organization may be a partner on a SCALES or PLANTS grant and the Lead on an Innovation Hub grant, or vice versa. Again, the projects must have different scopes of work. Decisions on SCALES and PLANTS expected in March 2024.

Can collaborative groups submit multiple applications for related projects under separate Leads?

Applicants cannot be awarded multiple sources of USDA funding for the same project. Applicants may receive multiple sources of USDA funding, including Innovation Hub Awards, for related projects as long as the scopes of work are distinct. Please work with your State Lead to determine if specific projects are eligible for multiple submissions or should be included in one submission.

 

Are fiscally sponsored organizations eligible to apply?

Yes, fiscally sponsored organizations are eligible to apply if they meet other Innovation Hub eligibility criteria. All organizations should consider if they are the best fit as the “Lead Applicant.” Please see the Eligibility section and Appendix C: Lead Applicant Guidance of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative request for applications for more information. 

Does our school or school district have to have a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals?

No, schools and school districts do not have to have a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals to be eligible for an Innovation Hub grant. However, applications that serve and/or include members of our priority populations will receive more points in the application scoring process. People with limited incomes are one of our priority populations. This is defined as at least 40 percent of students identified as having a limited income. Please refer to the Benchmarks and Sources for Priority Communities section of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative request for applications for more information. 

Can organizations based in states outside of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana apply?

Yes, an applicant located outside of the four Lake Michigan states may still be eligible to apply if they meet our other Innovation Hub eligibility criteria. However, all projects must be intended to benefit a school, group of schools, or school district within the four Lake Michigan states. Additionally, increasing the number of local food businesses working in the school food system and Lake Michigan region is an Innovation Hub goal, and points are awarded during the application scoring process accordingly. 

Can you apply for multiple rounds of Spark Awards?

Yes! An applicant can apply for and be awarded multiple rounds of Spark and/or Innovation Collaborative Awards. However, they may not have multiple Innovation Hub Awards at the same time.

We do not currently have a System for Award Management, but our fiscal sponsor does. Should we use theirs or create our own?

Yes, the fiscal sponsors’ System for Award Management (SAM) registration can be used.

Please note:

  • The fiscal agent must be listed as the lead applicant
  • It must be clear that the financial compliance will be attributed to the fiscal agent
  • Project deliverables are directly attributed to the organization the fiscal sponsor represents.

Can a group apply for more than one Innovation Hub grant across separate rounds with the same project, in different regions?

Yes, applicants are allowed to apply for the same project in different regions across multiple rounds.

Programmatic Requirements

    If awarded, what are the reporting requirements?

    • Your State Lead will collaborate with you to compile a Quarterly Report, documenting key activities, successes, obstacles, and expected changes each quarter.
    • The Innovation Hub hosts triannual training and networking sessions for you to attend. Following each session, you will be asked to complete a brief post-survey designed to help us improve future sessions.
    • An Annual Report is required encompassing a project summary, accomplishments, challenges, and customized metrics. The specific metrics will be tailored to align with your chosen project goal(s) and impact area(s).
    • Additionally, there is a possibility of being selected to undertake a success story or case study. In such instances, your State Lead will collaborate with you to narrate the story of your project.

    What is the level of involvement expected from the school/school district?

    The level of involvement from a school or school district depends on the proposed project. At a minimum, involved schools and school districts should support projects’ aims to address a school or school district’s needs. All applications without a school partner on the project team should include a letter of support from a school, school district, or group of schools that shows the school’s (or schools’) interest in the project and willingness to support efforts to respond to students’ dietary, cultural and religious needs and preferences. Please see Appendix E: Letters of Support Templates and Guidance of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information.

    Will the tri-annual training/networking sessions be in-person or virtual?

    The tri-annual training/networking sessions will occur virtually. As such, no travel is required to join these trainings.

    Support Offered

    Will support in Spanish for applications be available at the same time as support in English?

    Yes, State Leads offer application support in English and Spanish. All other supports, including office hours and recorded videos are also available in Spanish and English.

    Timeline

    How long do we have this funding for?

    The Innovation Hub is funded through December 2028. Within that time, there will be four rounds of one-year Spark Awards, and two rounds of two-year-and-five-month Innovation Collaborative Awards.

    Is there a deadline for these funds to be spent?

    For this round of Innovation Hub grants, the Spark Awards grant period ends on July 31, 2025, and includes an option for a 4-month no-cost extension period. The Innovation Collaborative Awards grant period ends on December 31, 2026. All funds must be spent by the end of the grant period. There will be three more rounds of Spark Awards and one more round of Innovation Collaborative Awards.

    ALLOWABLE EXPENSES

    Are farm employees who harvest and package vegetables eligible to have wages paid for by the grant?

    Salary and benefits for key staff directly supporting the project for the percentage of time that the staff will be supporting the project is an allowable expense. As such, wages of farm employees is an allowable expense for the amount of time the employee is directly supporting the project. Please see Appendix B: Allowable Costs of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information. 

    Can funds be used for technical assistance for farmers/schools to get connected to markets?

    Yes! Please see Appendix B: Allowable Costs of the Spark and Innovation Collaborative applications for more information.

    Can equipment be purchased with these grants?

    Yes, equipment is an allowable expense if it is essential to your project, meaning that it is directly related to the project’s outcomes. You will need to demonstrate that your equipment purchase is justified, meaning that the particular item that you are buying has the best value. In order to demonstrate that you are purchasing the best product for the price, you will need to provide 3-4 estimates for the equipment you wish to purchase, to show you have searched for the best value. You will be able to upload these estimates when you submit your application. Please see Appendix B: Allowable Costs in the Spark Award and Innovation Collaborative Award Requests for Applications or InnovateSchoolFood.org/allowable-costs for more information.

    May the funds be used to purchase locally grown products and get them into schools?

    No, funds may not be used to purchase food intended primarily for consumption. Please see Appendix B: Allowable Costs in the Spark Award and Innovation Collaborative Award Requests for Applications or InnovateSchoolFood.org/allowable-costs for more information.

    Is food for taste tests an allowable expense?

    Yes, as outlined in 2CFR, food purchased for product development and taste tests is allowable. Food purchased primarily for consumption is not allowable.

    Can funds be used to support a student-run garden program?

    Innovation Hub grants are intended to support projects that improve the school food system and marketplace. Student-run garden programs and similar are not the focus of this funding, and therefore applications for such projects are unlikely to score high-enough to receive funding. 

    Can grant funding be used to purchase equipment for increasing scratch cooking?

    Purchasing equipment to increase scratch cooking is an allowable expense with prior approval. Please note that budgets including equipment will require additional justification. Please see the budget template for more information, which can be downloaded at innovateschoolfood.org/application-information.

    Can grants be used for capital expenditures in food service facilities, for purposes such as expanding and/or updating kitchens and direct food service areas?

    Yes, but only certain capital expenditures, such as expenditures to acquire equipment, software, or leases are allowable. Expenditures for capital improvements, such as land, buildings, or any major improvement to facilities and infrastructure that would add to the permanent value of the building, are not allowable.

    Are grants available for acquiring food service equipment and enhancing kitchen facilities (e.g. school facilities)?

    Yes, equipment needed to support the project directly can be funded with the grant; however, equipment over $5,000 has separate terms and conditions as listed in 2CFR 200. Please note that other capital expenditures related to enhancing an existing facility other than the purchase of equipment are not allowable.

    Can grant funds be utilized to pay for training services that enhance skills directly related to a project (e.g. GAP Certification)?

    Yes, funds may be used for costs associated with activities that enhance the skills, knowledge, and resources to better meet the objectives of a project. These activities are only allowable if they directly support and are necessary to the project’s goals.

    Would funds cover costs for construction of structures used for agricultural work (e.g. a wash/pack building or root cellar)?

    No, construction costs are not an allowable expense under this grant. Money spent to make permanent significant, long-lasting enhancements or additions to property or facilities, is not allowable.

    Can Innovation Hub grants be used for professional development such as food service or culinary training?

    Yes, professional development training is an allowable expense if it directly contributes to capacity building and supports a project’s objectives.

    Can Innovation Hub grants be allocated towards nutrition and agriculture education for students, including activities like field trips and taste tests?

    Awards can be allocated toward improving food quality and nutrition. This includes activities that aim to improve the quality and nutritional value of food products, such as taste tests. Activities that enhance skills and knowledge such as field trips are also allowable if they directly support and are necessary to meet the project’s goals.

    Are walk-in coolers an allowable cost?

    A non-permanent, moveable, and prefabricated cooler is an allowable expense. Any construction that is needed for installation (e.g., electrical, flooring) is not an allowable expense.

    Would funding allow for expansion of existing school hydroponic systems such as drip systems or hydroponic gardens?

    Expansion of already existing hydroponic systems would fall under the “improvements” category, which are allowable if they directly contribute to the project’s goals. Please note that permanent structure building (e.g., foundation, plumbing, electrical) is not an allowable expense.

    Are minor improvements to physical spaces, such as painting the walls of a cafeteria or removing old cabinets and equipment allowable expenses?

    Yes, painting the walls would be an allowable expense if it is reasonable and supports the project goals. This would be considered a minor improvement.  Also, yes, contracted services for removal of old cabinets and equipment are allowable if doing so would help better meet the objectives of a project.

    Would labor and installation-based purchases, such as spray foam and directional boring, be considered an allowable expense?

    No, directional boring would not be an allowable expense. Funds used to make major changes to capital improvements such as installing underground pipe, conduit, or cable are not covered by this grant. The purchase of spray foam and cost of installation is not allowable under this grant. Expenses to make permanent significant, long-lasting enhancements or additions to property or facilities is not allowable.

    Is permanent or capital infrastructure an eligible expense if it is under $5,000?

    No, permanent capital infrastructure is not allowable, even if it is under $5,000.

    Do applicants need to provide 3 – 4 estimates for any equipment they wish to purchase, even if it’s less than $5,000?

    Estimates are only required for equipment over $5,000. This helps to ensure the equipment purchased is the most cost effective and efficient.

    Compliance

    Are project leads familiar with procurement regulations?

    The Illinois Public Health Institute has a Grants and Contracts Manager, Mariela Medina, who is familiar with grant and fiscal compliance. Mariela’s information is available on our website. Please reach out to Mariela via office hours or by scheduling an appointment for any questions. The Innovation Hub team works directly with the USDA to answer any questions for which we do not know the answer.

    Is there a maximum indirect cost rate?

    No, the Innovation Hub has not set a maximum indirect cost rate. Applying organizations may update the budget template with their federally negotiated indirect cost rate if it differs from the 10% de minimums indirect cost rate.

    ADMINISTRATION

    Is this a reimbursement grant?

    This will be a financial reconciliation grant. IPHI will award a percentage of funds up-front.

    Will the Spanish applications be reviewed at the same time as English applications?

    Applications received in Spanish, English, and as audio files will all be reviewed at the same time through the same process. Funding decisions will all be made by June 30, 2024.

    What is the disbursement schedule for funds?

    The Innovation Hub plans to provide 20% of the annual award up front on contract execution. Future payments will be provided monthly or quarterly through a reconciliation process to ensure the grantees maintain approximately 20% of the award amount in cash. For example, if the grantee spends half of their 20% up front award in the first month, they will reconcile those payments with the Illinois Public Health Institute and then receive another payment to return them to having 20% of their annual award in cash. This reconciliation process will continue until up to 90% of the total award amount for the year has been expended. The final 10% of the award will be paid upon completion and submission of all grant deliverables and reports for the year and final invoice. Please visit Compliance Support office hours for more information. The schedule and links to join office hours are available at: innovateschoolfood.org/support.

    DEFINITIONS

    Does "school food" also include after school, out of school time, summer meals, etc.?

    The focus of this initiative is on the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs. That said, improving the school food system and marketplace will also impact other child nutrition programs. 

    Should early care and education facilities apply as an “other organization” or as a “school”?

    Schools are defined as K – 12 entities which operate the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and/or School Breakfast Program (SBP). As such, early care and education would be an “other organization.” Projects that include early care and education must also benefit a school and include a letter of support from a school, school district, or group of schools.

    What is your working definition of a school food system?

    The collection of people, entities, products, and processes that feed K – 12 students while they are in school.