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Using USDA Foods to Support Local Food in Schools

The vast majority (about 80 percent) of the budget for school food comes from tax reimbursement dollars. The remaining 20 percent are “entitlement dollars” that come from and are spent on the USDA Foods Program, including the Deptartment of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Both these programs can be used to support more local food in school meals.

USDA Foods was created to support American agriculture and to feed hungry children by the Agricultural Act of 1935; this bill authorized USDA to purchase surplus products to promote consumption and support American agriculture. The National School Lunch Act of 1946 institutionalized the link between the National School Lunch Program and the USDA Foods program. The program is now completely demand-driven; rather than a way to buy up surpluses, specific products are purchased at the request of states and school districts.

Child nutrition programs in schools are one outlet that USDA Foods serves. USDA purchases around $1.5 billion each year for child nutrition programs, and buys over 180 products from all over the country.

There are four ways USDA Foods can support local purchases:

1) The program helps school districts maximize the money they have to spend on local purchases. Using these entitlement dollars to purchase certain foods can help leave reimbursement dollars in district budgets for buying local. The cost of foods in the USDA Foods program is often lower because of the scale on which it is bought. For instance, when an item’s price through USDA Foods is significantly lower than a commercial equivalent, a district can put a lot of their entitlement dollars toward that product, freeing up reimbursement dollars to use in other places, including local purchases.

2) USDA Foods is committed to American agriculture. All the products purchased in this program are always American grown. Some products tend to be purchased from the same state or region year after year. The following products tend to come from the southeast:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Peanut Butter
  • Catfish (most likely from Mississippi)
  • Rice
  • Flour

Although these products cannot be guaranteed to come from Georgia (or even the southeast) in coming years, it’s probable that they will. Purchasing these items from USDA Foods can give you a higher likelihood of serving local.

3) USDA Foods supports local processors. Many states and districts purchase whole foods from USDA Foods and then send those items to local processors to be turned into a more ready-to-use product. Local processors can even mix non-local USDA Foods items with local items, like a pizza made with USDA Foods cheese and local vegetable toppings!

4) USDA Foods supports local fruit and vegetable producers through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Since 1962, DoD’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) has supported an extensive food supply network, delivering to military bases, commissaries, etc. In the mid-1990s, USDA began leveraging DoD’s existing infrastructure to help deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to schools. DLA contracts with 47 produce vendors, each within a specific contract zone. These contract zones are often states, but some large states have multiple zones, and some small states share a zone. In Georgia, the whole state is one contract zone served by one distributor. The 47 distributors in the program are encouraged to connect with local producers, and many already are.

States and schools decide each year how much of their USDA Foods entitlement dollars they want to spend on the DoD Fresh program—some districts allocate 100 percent of this budget to DoD Fresh. Schools can order online weekly, and items are labeled “locally grown” on the ordering sheet.

Beginning in July 2014, vendors will be labelling each item with their state of origin, as “locally grown” is not always defined the same way. When ordering in the future, schools will be more informed about where the produce is actually coming from.

USDA Foods is always looking for more producers, and small farms are definitely eligible. With more Georgia grown food in the USDA Foods program, Georgia schools will have even more options for buying local. Find out more about supplying USDA Foods here and more about the program in general here. For more information about using these programs to buy local, watch these USDA webinars on Using USDA Foods as a Resource to Purchase Local and Using DoD Fresh to Purchase Local.

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