Most school food service directors are familiar with the USDA Distribution Food Program. It was set up by the federal government to purchase a variety of farm-produced foods to support the National School Lunch Program.
The program allocates money so schools can obtain nutritious food for students, and ensures farmers have a market for their products. Sounds great, right? In most instances, it is a beneficial nationwide program. Schools buy USDA food products—fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and cheese—and students eat well.
But if you’re a school food service director watching the bottom line, what is the best way to spend your entitlement dollars? You can buy unprocessed, brown-box bulk products, or you can purchase processed commercial products that fit your customers/students or your operational needs. There is a lot to consider for schools that want to be better buyers.
Naturally, you always want products at the best price possible. And dealing with USDA foods is a bit like playing the stock market—there is a risk of paying too much or not having products available when you want them. Each year, usually in November, a federal price forecast is released. This forecast sets prices for the next school year, which manufacturers use to formulate products offered to schools.
Schools are required to indicate, usually in March or April, which products they want for the next schools year, but their request is contingent on availability through the USDA.
“Committing to buying ground beef from the November price file can be a gamble,” says Gordon Food Service Customer Development Specialist Carl Hopp. “If ground beef continues to trend up, by next fall you may only get a fraction of the cases you ordered due to much higher prices whereas the price of commercial ground beef will rise and fall with market fluctuations and could be a much better buy.”
The beef example illustrates the benefit of choosing the right products or knowing when to divert your dollars when spending on USDA products. For example, by diverting dollars to turkey instead of beef, you could lower the cost of meat that is versatile for many menu items, from turkey burgers to taco meat and beyond.
Alison Bowersock, a Gordon Food Service Education Specialist in Florida, says price fluctuations are tricky to gauge, and school food service directors don’t have time to study crop forecasts. That’s why it’s smart to consult with your food service distributor, who can find answers to your USDA spending questions and help you get the most for your money.
A great example of this process comes from Emily Mattern, RD, a Gordon Food Service Education Specialist in Indiana. This year, she advises her customers to spend USDA dollars on center of the plate items—proteins such as beef, chicken, turkey pork, and cheese—that are traditionally staples of the lunch menu year after year. All schools know they will need these foods daily. Other foods are more flexible.
“Save any leftover dollars for fruits and vegetables that can be served alongside the center-of-the-plate products,” Mattern says. “If the commercial price is lower than the commodity price, then you haven’t locked up too much money at a more expensive price than you could get on the open market.”
When considering brown box items, it’s important to compare the USDA cost against your commercial bid cost, plus applicable storage and delivery fees, to determine whether brown box products are best for your school.
Food service directors are often deceived when they see the bill for their USDA foods. The bill that arrives typically only shows the delivery fee, so the brown box products appear to be free. The actual food cost is the fair market value of the product (determined by the USDA) and the delivery charges, so it might not be a bargain when compared to buying commercially.
Storage is a factor to consider. Some states charge fees to store USDA products if schools don’t have space to keep thousands of pounds of food. Mattern and Hopp point out that diverting USDA dollars to purchase commodity foods from commercial suppliers reduces storage worries.
“Buying commercial products with Gordon Food Service can be a savings and a convenience,” Hopp says. “We have the ability to deliver just five cases of product a week if that’s all you need.”
Hopp notes that quality is rarely an issue. All USDA foods are domestically grown or produced, “so you get 100 percent U.S. beef or chicken, which is very high quality.”
Freshness is a different matter. Mattern points out that taking delivery of a month’s worth of product and putting it in the freezer means some food will sit for a month or even be forgotten and wasted.
“Brown box delivery is usually monthly, sometimes from products that have been sitting in a warehouse for a long time, waiting for an order,” Mattern says. “When you order from Gordon Food Service or divert your USDA dollars to purchase commercial products, we deliver weekly, so you get fresher food in the amount you need.”
Kitchen efficiency is a factor for food service directors to consider with commodity purchases. Many schools rely on processed, ready-to-cook foods. Breaded chicken strips, cooked beef or pork crumbles, and sliced or shredded cheese likely are more expensive than buying bulk raw meats or cheese blocks. But Mattern reminds schools to consider the savings in kitchen labor and time when considering what to buy.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to determining which product gives the most bang for your USDA food buck. It’s important to consider what works best for your school—the non-processed brown box items, or the processed items from a variety of commercial food sources.
For some schools, the best buy is beef, pork, turkey, and chicken—versatile players on every menu. At other schools, it may be cheese, which can be used in tacos, pizza toppings, salad bars, and sliced for burgers.
Each school has to consider what food purchases match up best with menu needs. The one thing Hopp, Bowersock, and Mattern all advise is that past practices are subject to change. And that’s where advice from your Gordon Food Service Customer Development Specialist plays an important role.
“Looking ahead, this might not be a good time to buy commodity beef or chicken because of price volatility,” Bowersock says. “A year from now, that may change, so it’s best not to listen to advice so you don’t get pigeonholed.”