08/03/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

Illinois Schools Join Fresh Fruit And Vegetable Program, With $4.7 Million Federal Grant

The state of Illinois has harvested a sizable crop of federal dollars to give away free fresh produce to the poorest students in the state's elementary schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is giving $4.7 million to 215 schools around the state, including 31 schools in Chicago. That's up 42 percent from last year, when 186 schools split $3.3 million, according to the Associated Press.

Schools are picked for the program based on how many of their students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, a common metric used to gauge how many impoverished students are in a school. The Illinois State Board of Education's website explains that the program is intended to provide fresh fruits and veggies to students at no cost, in addition to the free or reduced-price lunch they're already receiving.

"If you're going to teach children and change their eating habits, that's the grade level you need to hit," Jan Miller, director of food services in the Springfield public schools, told the State Journal-Register. "It's to introduce low-income children to all kinds of different types of fruits and vegetables that maybe they've never had access to, and to encourage them to get that or encourage their parents to get that in their diets."

An editorial in the Rockford Register-Star also praised the importance of the program:

How is this program growing when other state programs are left hungry?

Simple: People are beginning to realize problems like obesity -- and the related disorders of diabetes, high blood pressure and joint problems -- are not sustainable. Our medical costs are rising too quickly.

We pay now or pay later.

Last year, only 12 schools in Chicago participated in the program. This year's participating schools in the city are: St Angela School, Holy Angels Annex, St Michael School, Academy Of St Benedict The African, Quality School - Washington Campus, Learn Elementary Charter School, St Ethelreda School, Epiphany School, St Elizabeth, St John De La Salle School, St Ann, St Catherine Of Siena-St Lucy, St Helena Of The Cross, CICS Wrightwood, CICS-Prairie, CICS-Longwood, CICS-Bucktown, Pope John Paul II, St Turibius School, St Hyacinth, Bond Elementary School, Revere Elementary Accelerated School, Hay Elementary Community Academy, Brighton Park Elementary School, Harold Washington Elementary School, Everett Elementary School, Walsh Elementary School, Higgins Elementary Community Academy, Polaris Charter Academy, Rowe Elementary, University Of Chicago-Donoghue, and the Global Citizenship Elementary.