From the Source: School Food Procurement 101

Child holding a lunch tray

On the FoodCorps blog, we share stories from the field—insights from our service members, as well as inspiration from our alumni, partners, and supporters. Starting now, you’ll hear about another group of leaders: the people involved with procurement, or the process of specifying and buying food for schools. 

Let us explain. You may recall that last year FoodCorps joined forces with School Food Focus—a win-win for healthy food in school cafeterias and kitchens. From 2008 to 2017, School Food Focus worked directly with school districts to combine their purchasing power and source more nutritious fruits, vegetables, and whole foods from regional farms and purveyors. 

Now that FoodCorps has incorporated School Food Focus’ priorities, we’re excited to support school districts in making procurement decisions that help connect more kids to healthy school food. Our hope is that by creating change at a systems level, we’ll make an impact with the potential to benefit all of our nation’s 100,000 schools. 

Procurement is important behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t always get the spotlight, yet buying and preparing nutritious foods is at the root of serving healthy meals in school. That’s why we’re excited to share more as we put our ideas into action.

Keep an eye out for updates from school nutrition stakeholders—school nutrition directors, procurement managers, food manufacturers, distributors, and others who work hand-in-hand with our FoodCorps service members to get more healthy food on students’ plates. In the meantime, let’s take a look at why FoodCorps is working on procurement. 

Why is procurement part of the FoodCorps strategy?

Healthy meals start with the procurement of healthy foods and ingredients. Many school districts and school nutrition directors are working hard to move away from processed foods and toward whole foods, local produce, and ingredients with stronger nutritional profiles.

Procurement is important behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t always get the spotlight, yet buying and preparing nutritious foods is at the root of serving healthy meals in school.

Procurement can help school nutrition departments drive what they want to serve to students. Whether it’s finding a tomato sauce with lower sodium or buying tomatoes to make sauce in the school kitchen, making changes to the procurement process directs more wholesome and nutritious foods into schools. 

Where do we begin to change such a complex system?

Supply and demand are at the heart of every purchasing system, and the school food marketplace is no different. Food manufacturers and distributors make business decisions based on their customers’ demand.

When school districts join forces to combine their purchasing power, or demand, they can shift food production toward more wholesome school food, or supply. When districts purchase more school food from local farms and purveyors, the environment, local economy, and school food culture all win. 

Healthy meals start with the procurement of healthy foods and ingredients.

Has this approach worked before?

Yes! School districts, food manufacturers, and suppliers across the country have been working to make more wholesome, nutritious, and sustainable products available to school cafeterias. A few examples:

  • Chicken is the most-served protein in school meals, and school districts spend $1 billion annually to serve it in the cafeteria. Recognizing the potential for improvement in this massive portion of the school food marketplace, School Food Focus led a multi-year collaborative effort with school districts, food producers, and government stakeholders to improve the standard of U.S. poultry production. They ultimately leveraged the districts’ collective purchasing power to create a higher quality, environmentally sustainable product. As a result, higher quality chicken became available both nationwide, by the creation of a clean-label chicken strip through USDA Foods, and via certain regional producers increasing their supply. To date, 10 poultry companies have met the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU) standard, which has raised the bar for poultry across the industry.
  • The Urban School Food Alliance consists of six school districts that collectively serve 2.5 million meals a day. That means roughly 225 million polystyrene trays were thrown in landfills each year. In 2013, in pursuit of cost savings and environmental sustainability, these districts aggregated their purchasing power and asked suppliers to develop compostable plates for use in their school meal programs. The suppliers offered a solution, and districts saw lower costs and environmental sustainability. One district reported upwards of 24% in savings. Had these districts purchased the compostable plates on their own, they might have faced double the cost for the same product. 
  • The Common Market is a nonprofit that aggregates and distributes sustainable, local products to institutions in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Texas. Since its inception in 2008, it has distributed over $28 million of local products from over 200 small and midsize family farms. The Common Market’s staff works directly with school nutrition directors seeking fresh, source-identified ingredients for their menus, including locally grown and processed fruit, salad greens, and individually quick-frozen produce. This partnership enables school nutrition leaders to leverage the district’s purchasing power to support local farmers and regional economies.

Looking for more information about the school food system? Stay tuned for more posts covering different topics in procurement. Meanwhile, check out Six Things You Need to Know About School Food

Want to learn more about how school meals reach students’ trays? Check out the other posts in this series, School Meals and Student Health and Who’s Who in School Food

This information comes from work conducted by School Food Focus, which has merged with FoodCorps. We gratefully acknowledge the leadership and staff from School Food Focus who contributed to gathering the research and knowledge shared in this post.