Fresh Food Procurement


Preparing school meals from scratch using fresh, whole ingredients is a trend that is happening around the nation. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 supports “fresh” in its foundation of food-based menu planning. The legislation even tasked the USDA with assisting schools by improving access to local foods. This is a new era of school food.

Districts that already had a strong foundation in scratch cooking were elated with the new regulations, and districts that were moving in that direction prior to 2012 found that the regulations reinforced their chosen path. But for many districts, food-based menu planning—which entails meeting fruit and vegetable requirements (including sub-groups), whole grain requirements, and calorie maximums— launched them on a path that has challenged their menu-planning, procurement, and bottom line. Today, many districts are still in transition.

We are now entering the third full year of the regulation implementation and there is still a lot of change ahead, particularly as breakfast requirements come on in full form. So how do we meet these regulations while continuing to develop scratch-based menus; focusing on fresh, whole, ingredients; locating sources for local food; utilizing our commodities fully; offering meals that students will recognize and eat; and manage our expenditures successfully?  Pound for pound, fresh food can actually cost less than manufactured foods, but because food cost represents such a large percentage of the department’s expenses (second only to labor) the challenge of managing the cost center while implementing a shift in menu vision and regulation compliance is especially challenging.

Creating a Vision

School food is messy and complex. We cannot dumb it down to make it simple. What we can do is identify the processes and steps we must take to ensure that we are making informed decisions in our program delivery. 

Many districts do not have personnel who are entirely devoted to procurement. This role may be filled by the director, an administrative staff person in the department office, the kitchen site staff, the menu planner, or a combination of people. Sometimes we see this job given to a district’s general procurement office, which may know a great deal about ordering paper or books, but not about the intricacies of purchasing food.

The vision of the meal underpins procurement. When we say: “I want the kids to have healthy food.”  What does that really look like? What measurement is used to determine what is “healthy”? Is it the nutrition facts label? Is it the geographic location of the food source? Is it whether the food was received whole, precut, or precooked? Is it whether the ingredient label has one ingredient or twenty?  These are the questions that school food is addressing now. The HHFKA was the result of years of research and discourse that intersected the broader cultural interest in understanding the connections between health, food, illness, and physical activity. As a result of the regulations, we now have the opportunity to critically evaluate our meals and determine what our vision is for the food that we serve.

Shaping and Defining Your Food Standards

The federal and state standards combine to provide the legal framework and requirements of procurement that are most familiar. When we discuss “defining your food standards,” we are not discussing the correct and compliant method of procurement relative to federal or state code, but rather, how your district, state, city, or county may define or describe the food that you purchase for your meal programs. The term “food policy” is another common reference for this. These standards are a measure beyond the federal food procurement standards that regulate a safe and healthful food supply.

The concept of defining standards of food helps guide menu planning and ultimately procurement.  The amount of district and community stakeholders shaping and defining standards in food procurement is growing as school districts recognize the value in creating a healthy school environment on all levels, including the dining room. Revisiting the Local Wellness Policy to assess and set clearer achievable goals is one of the most common avenues for defining food standards in school districts.  

Wellness policies can guide procurement through direct references to specific food profiles and their sources such as local and regional foods. (See Wellness Policy and Smart Snacks.) These policies can also describe the goals that meals should meet. The following language is an example from Boulder Valley School District:

  • All reimbursable meals and snacks will meet or exceed USDA nutrition regulations. Further, all menus will promote fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains, and will reduce and/or eliminate refined sugar, refined flour, excess saturated fat, and sodium as outlined in Institute of Medicine (IOM) standards.
  • The policy, as it applies to Food Services, supports replacing processed foods with foods cooked from scratch whenever possible.
  • The District will support sustainable, and when possible, certified organic agricultural principles. Therefore, Food Services shall develop and implement a menu and procurement plan to integrate local sustainable food into the meals served to our students within the District’s financial constraints.
  • The plan, as it applies to procurement, shall seek to eliminate potential harmful food additives, colorings and processes, such as bovine growth hormones, irradiation, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified foods, and other known harmful foods per the most current peer-reviewed, valid, and reliable scientific research.

School Food FOCUS, a collaborative group supported through non-profit partners, works with 36 large districts (40,000+ enrollment) across the country by sharing knowledge and developing best practices to support the making of more healthful, regionally sourced, and sustainably produced school meals nationwide. An example of this is the Los Angeles Unified School District where they developed procurement guidelines for food services by adopting the "Good Food Procurement Resolution." “Good Food,” as described, supports a regional food system that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. Another example is the formation of the Urban School Food Alliance, a cooperative buying group formed by Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Orlando in order to share best practices with regard to good food policies, local procurement, and sound environmental standards. In LA’s case, they used components of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s definition of good food in institutional purchasing to develop their district’s resolution.  

By defining your district’s vision for food in addition to following the federal guidelines for child nutrition programs, all parties will have a clear understanding of what is acceptable with regard to procurement in your district.


Produce in a Changing System

One of the biggest challenges in procurement is produce. Though the HHFKA has made a great impact on the purchase of produce, it doesn’t specify fresh produce. Long before the USDA issued HHFKA, we were advocating for the inclusion of salad bars in schools.

HHFKA calls out scratch cooking and salad bars as a means to comply with vegetable sub-groups and the reduction of sodium (a common problem with ready-to-heat foods). Salad bars’ impact to the meal is immediate and students experience choice as well as new foods and flavor. The shift in purchase volume almost always results in the need to develop a specific RFP for produce or multiple RFPs depending on your region, growing season, and depth of available vendors. 

Vendor opportunities range from broad-line vendors like Sysco that has a full produce line often including fresh-cut product (depending on location) to produce specialty vendors to Farm to School procurement. If you are in a district that has little experience with purchasing fresh produce, the challenge of developing a proposal can be daunting. At the beginning of the Salad Bar Procurement section, we’ve outlined a series of steps to evaluate your current menu, planned menu, purchase history, and food budget to assist in developing your produce RFP. RFP language and examples specific to local produce procurement can also be found in the USDA’s Procuring Local Food Child Nutrition Programs.

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