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. To make it more manageable, we can identify processes and steps 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

A program vision provides guidance for day-to-day decisions, such as wellness goals and nutrition education. Food standards provide the benchmarks for ingredients.

The federal and state standards combine to provide the legal framework and requirements of procurement. When we discuss “defining your food standards,” we are not referring to 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.

Defining food standards helps guide menu planning and ultimately procurement. District and community stakeholders are increasingly involved in shaping and defining standards 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 clear, achievable goals is one of the most common avenues for defining food standards in school districts, but a district can also adopt food or nutrition standards as a stand-alone policy.

The following language is an example from Boulder Valley School District's Wellness Policy that includes their food standards:

Food and Nutrition:

  • All of our food will be cooked with a priority on both healthfulness and deliciousness.
  • All menus will promote scratch-cooked meals made from fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and clean proteins to include plant-forward menu items. BVSD has implemented the following practices, procedures and standards:

1. In practicing good food procurement methods, BVSD will support a regional food system that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. Thoughtful purchasing practices by BVSD can influence the creation and availability of a local, equitable, and sustainable good food system. BVSD will continue to emphasize the following values for food procurement: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, nutrition, and value-chain equity and innovation.

 2. The procurement plan, shall seek to eliminate potential harmful food additives, colorings and dyes, high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified foods, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, refined sugar, brominated flour and artificial sweeteners.

As shown above, a food standard vision can comply and reach beyond the federal guidelines for nutrition, and will also provide a clear understanding of procurement goals and priorities.


Produce in a Changing System

One of the biggest challenges in procurement is produce. Although the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 made a great impact by requiring servings of fruit or vegetable at breakfast and lunch, it does not specify fresh produce. Long before the USDA issued HHFKA, many organizations (including ours!) were advocating for the inclusion of salad bars in schools and shifting from canned and frozen products to fresh whenever possible.

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

Vendor opportunities include broad-line vendors (like Sysco, which has a full produce line often including fresh-cut product), produce specialty vendors, and Farm to School procurement. If your district has little experience with fresh produce, developing a proposal can be daunting, but we’ve provided tools and steps to ease the process. In 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 a 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 and the RFP examples in Procurement Tools and Resources.

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