Guest Blog: Partnering with USDA to Bring More Good Food to Schools

May 28, 2014

A guest blog from School Food FOCUS

USDA Foods, formerly called commodity foods, represent about 15 to 20 percent of the food included in your average school lunch. So, improving the food offered to schools through this program is important for making sure our students receive healthy food. We are so glad that School Food FOCUS has taken on this challenge.

By Sheilah Davidson

Making changes that bring more healthy, regionally and sustainably grown foods to school children is a lot like turning a cruise ship. Changes must be made slowly and carefully, with attention to many factors and challenges faced by school food professionals. An important part of this process is improving access to the foods available to schools via the USDA Foods program (often called commodities).

USDA’s national, large-volume purchasing helps keep prices lower than an individual district would pay for the same items while ensuring a steady market for U.S. farmers. While USDA has made big strides in improving the quality of these foods, there is huge variation in how well or poorly the program is implemented at the state level, usually by the Department of Education or Department of Agriculture (often called the “state agency”).

School Food FOCUS (FOCUS) staff and stakeholders have been on the case since 2012, in partnership with staff at USDA Foods. The FOCUS working group, called the 180 Access Team, is charged with helping more districts in more states get access to the 180 Foods available on the USDA list; over time that list has actually grown to 240 items.

Our first step was to send a letter [pdf], signed by over 50 stakeholders and allies, in support of more equal access to USDA Foods across all states. Team members were excited that this action quickly resulted in a USDA guidance memo to state agencies, directing compliance with the already-in-place policies named in the letter. Next, USDA convened an unprecedented meeting in November of 2012, where many school food advocates and administrators at district, state and federal levels openly discussed, with very receptive USDA staff, ideas to improve the USDA Foods program.

Encouraged by this interest, the FOCUS 180 Access Team dug deeper—talking to school food professionals in our network about best practices, challenges and suggested recommendations at the state and federal level. The fruit of this work was shared with allies in the USDA Foods program, who welcomed the “ground-truthed” feedback. Incorporating this input, and much more from the November 2012 Stakeholder Meeting, USDA Foods staff developed an action plan, released in July of 2013. The plan includes:

  • Sharing best practices (This began with a series of training/listening sessions for all state agency officials, completed in February of 2014.)

  • Providing information [pdf] to producers on selling local foods via USDA and directly to schools

  • Providing information [pdf] about where some USDA Foods are typically sourced

  • Exploring opportunities for taste testing

  • Improving ways for state agencies, districts and USDA Foods to share feedback

More generally, USDA Foods staff are checking in regularly with regional USDA FNS staff to track state level progress. There are also plans to pair state agency staff who need guidance with those in other states that are doing well with the USDA Foods program.

Many 180 Access Team ideas were also raised at the USDA Agriculture and Marketing Service Industry Meeting in January 2014, including the need for source identification of products. USDA Foods is also planning a series of webinars co-presented with FOCUS and stakeholders to highlight new federal flexibility in USDA Foods, and resources to translate that into state- and district-level improvements. Additionally, FOCUS staff is checking in with stakeholders on changes and ongoing challenges with USDA Foods. In this and other ways, the 180 Access Team is helping USDA move from sharing best practices to results-oriented action. Clearly, the blend of stakeholder wisdom, staff support and USDA’s openness to this important work has created a powerful engine for moving the USDA Foods program to better serve school districts and the children they feed.

School Food FOCUS (FOCUS) is a national collaborative that leverages the knowledge and procurement power of large school districts to make school meals more healthful, regionally sourced, and sustainably produced. Working with school food service professionals and their district partners in 37 large districts, we develop and share successful models for transforming school meals, backed by respected research and analysis.

HSC is happy to be partnering with School Food FOCUS and other allies in this important work.