September 11, 2008 - Every day, USDA commodities play a vital role supporting the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and other child nutrition programs. Commodities function as an important resource for schools, particularly in an era of rising food prices. The USDA commodity program accounts for about 15-20% of food served in the NSLP.
- The USDA commodity program provides nutritious options to schools. Over 60 types of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grain foods such as brown rice, rolled oats, whole-wheat flour and whole grain pasta are available. Additionally, over the past two decades, USDA has reduced the amounts of fat, sugar and sodium in commodities, while maintaining quality and acceptability for students. Commodity beef is 85% lean and USDA is evaluating the use of a 95% lean beef product. Reduced fat cheese are available. Canned fruits are packed in juice, light syrup, or water and unsweetened applesauce is now available. Most canned vegetables meet FDA’s “healthy” standard for sodium and USDA plans to reduce sodium even further in the 2008-2009 school year.
- Schools typically use their commodity dollars to purchase the most expensive part of the menu - often the center of the plate entree. To maximize commodity entitlement, many school nutrition professionals use their commodity dollars to purchase lean beef, reduced fat cheese, and other protein offering from the commodity program rather than the fruit, vegetable and grain items available. Schools must utilize their commodity dollars in a way that provides the most cost savings to their district nutrition program.
USDA Commodities are a Healthy Choice
USDA continually evaluates the food items made available to assist school nutrition programs in producing meals which meet the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). USDA’s continued improvements are helping schools implement the DGA by allowing them to offer more fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Schools can use their commodity dollars to purchase over 60 types of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grain foods such as brown rice, rolled oats, whole-wheat flour and whole grain pasta. Additionally, over the past two decades, USDA has reduced the amounts of fat, sugar and sodium in commodities, while maintaining quality and acceptability for students. Commodity beef is 85% lean and USDA is evaluating the use of a 95% lean beef product. Canned fruits are packed in juice, light syrup, or water and unsweetened applesauce is now available. Most canned vegetables meet FDA’s “healthy” standard for sodium and USDA plans to reduce sodium even further in the 2008-2009 school year. See Related Links for a list of current Foods Available through the USDA commodity program.
USDA Commodities are an Economical Choice
Every dollar a school spends on commodities represents a dollar saved on other commercial food purchases. Commodity foods act as a supplement to per meal cash reimbursements and offer increased value to schools. Available USDA commodities are often less expensive to schools than identical products in commercial markets due to USDA’s bulk buying power and ability to purchase at the best prices available throughout the year. Schools can also save money outside of commercial markets through reduced costs in shipping, handling and storage. School nutrition directors purchase products through the commodity program which meet their menu needs and offer the greatest cost savings available. Another way the commodity program can cut costs for a school nutrition program is by offering ready-to-use end products which reduce labor hours needed to produce a meal. Many school nutrition programs wisely use their commodity entitlement to purchase the more expensive items on the lunch menu – often meat and cheese items.
USDA Commodities are Continually Improving
On September 10th, 2008, two advocacy groups released reports outlining the progress, challenges and future opportunities of USDA’s commodity program. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released, “Commodity Food and the Nutrition Quality of the National School Lunch Program: Historical Role, Current Operations and Future Potential.” This report outlines how the commodity program was started and its evolution since inception. The FRAC report also explains how the program works and identifies key “Nutrition Critical Control Points” (NCCP) where decisions made at the national, state and local level have a significant impact on the nutritional profile of the commodity foods available in the school lunch program. Several recommendations are made at each NCCP which will ultimately assist the commodity program to further improve the nutritional quality of school meals. The federal recommendations include supporting current efforts by USDA to improve school lunch commodities, supporting legislation to improve meal reimbursement rates and supporting legislation to provide more funding for the purchase and repair of equipment, which would allow schools to prepare more food on-site. The State level recommendations include allowing all school districts to choose from the entire USDA foods available list and for states to provide more training on the commodity program. The report also encourages USDA and state agencies to develop model specifications for processed commodity products.
The second report, published by California Food Policy Advocates, “The Impact of the Federal Child Nutrition Commodity Program on the Nutritional Quality of Schools Meals in California,” takes a much more critical look at the commodity program and its effect on school meals. The report compares commodities offered by USDA to commodities actually purchased by school districts. While the report is critical of food purchases of meat and dairy, which account for 82% of California’s commodity spending during the research period in 2005-2006, it recognizes the fact that schools must utilize their commodity dollars in a way that provides the most cost savings to their district. The report ultimately recommends commodities continue to support the DGA and schools maximize utilization of the commodity program as “an essential resource for school meal programs” and “an excellent opportunity for schools to serve nutritious food.”
Both reports praise USDA for the improved nutritional quality and nutrient standards of the products they offer, as well as improvements in operations and customer service. The reports both emphasize the significant economic struggles affecting school nutrition programs through rapidly rising food prices, labor and transportation costs with decreasing local and state financial support and recognizes the financial impact of commodities to viability of the school meal programs.
The Federal Child Nutrition Commodity Program - A Report on Nutritional Quality California Food Policy Advocates, September 2008
Commodity Foods and the Nutritional Quality of the National School Lunch Program: Historical Role, Current Operations, and Future Potential Food Research and Action Center, September 2008
Did You Know Fact Sheet on the Commodity Program from USDA
USDA Commodity Program Foods Available for 2009 School Year