Catfish, strawberries, garbanzo beans, flour and walnuts: what do they all have in common? These foods are just some of the nearly 200 USDA foods school food services have to choose from.
USDA foods, commonly called commodities, are foods purchased by the United States Department of Agriculture to be used for the National School Lunch Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program. The USDA’s goal is to provide nutritious foods in schools while also supporting American farmers through the purchase of their goods. An estimated 1.09 billion pounds of USDA foods at a value of $844 million have been distributed this school year, according to a USDA fact sheet.
Kim Simpson, food services coordinator for Bowling Green city schools in Bowling Green, Ky., had to place her order for USDA foods for next school year in January – seven months before the school year begins.
“It’s huge amounts and we just have to hope that that’s what we use.” Simpson said. “I try to order things that I know we’re going to use every week.”
French fries, ketchup packets and mashed potatoes are things she knows the schools will use. “I don’t try to order anything too crazy or fancy when I’m using government money,” Simpson said.
School districts receive a set amount of money to go towards USDA foods for every meal they serve. That amount varies each year. In the 2009-2010 school year, it was 19.5 cents per meal, according to the USDA fact sheet.
Schools can choose to either receive the foods directly from the USDA or have them sent to a processor first. Simpson chooses to have the foods processed. For example, tomato paste Simpson orders from the district’s distributor, Southern Foods, goes directly to Red Gold. Red Gold then processes it into ketchup packets and sends those back to Southern Foods, which delivers those to schools in the district as kitchen managers order it.
Critics argue that processing commodities ends in food less healthy for students than if the items were used to make meals from scratch in school kitchens.
Others say that those foods sent directly from the USDA to schools, called brown box foods, are held to food safety standards that are too low, according to an investigation by USA Today last year.
Simpson would rather have commodities processed than get brown box foods. “Anything coming out of those manufacturers I feel better about than something coming to me in a brown box from the government,” she said.
With the foods going to the processor, Simpson can then order processed items as she needs them throughout the school year.
“Instead of getting the whole chicken that we have to clean and the kids don’t really like, we get chicken nuggets and chicken patties that they do like,” she said.