This week, we’re diving head first into something that every school nutrition program that participates in National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and/or School Breakfast Program (SBP) deals with daily – USDA Foods (formerly and commonly known to many of you as “commodities”).

Making USDA Foods Work for Your Program

New for SY 2018-2019: USDA FNS Available Foods List Released

In March 2018, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) released an updated list of available foods for the upcoming school year from which schools can use their entitlement funds to purchase goods. Some of the latest USDA Foods additions include frozen mixed vegetables, egg patty rounds, and a mixed berry cup (half blue and half strawberry in a frozen individual serving) from our pals at Wild Blueberries.

This list is extremely insightful for those who work in school foodservice. Not only does it give the list of foods that will be available in the coming year, these foods are also grouped by category (fruits, vegetables, cheese, etc.), and even by sub-category (whole grain-rich, bulk for processing, vegetable sub-groups, etc.).

Note: This list is subject to change based on market availability. Please reference the WBSCM catalog which contains the most up to date list of available USDA Foods.

For the full breakdown, along with general information about the USDA Foods available list, please visit this website.

Use It or Lose It: Why Leaving USDA Entitlement Funds on the Table is Never a Good Idea

This tip is pretty straight forward: you either use all the funds sitting in your entitlement account for USDA foods, or you lose them…never to be seen again!

Your entitlement account (also known as the Planned Assistance Level, or PAL, Account) is money that the government gives your program to aid with the purchase of necessary ingredients to run your school nutrition operations. Entitlement funds left unused at the end of the school year is money that your school nutrition program will never get the chance to use again. If you do not tap into your PAL Account and have the food delivered and received by October of the following year (after ordering), that money is subject to a sweep. And if you don’t use that money and don’t have a good history of usage – sorry…you don’t get to keep it. Use those funds!

For example: if you choose to purchase beef patties from a local vendor when you still have ample amounts of money left in your entitlement to cover the USDA Foods version of the same beef patties, you are draining funds unnecessarily from your district’s nutrition budget.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail: Create a Game Plan for Your USDA Foods Orders

I love this saying – “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” This is so true, especially when you are running as large and complex of an operation as your entire district’s school nutrition program!

In a previous post about organizing your central warehouse, I covered why planning ahead in your school nutrition program is so crucial for success. The same principle applies to how you should be managing your USDA Foods orders and production cycles.

Managing your commodity usage should be a continuous and ongoing process that doesn’t stop when the year is over. You should always be recording, analyzing, and adjusting item order amounts based on how they are performing in your schools.

Below are a few solid planning tips to use when managing your USDA Foods.

  1. Estimate the amount of entitlement funds that you will receive early in the planning process.Initially, base your ordering estimates on what your entitlement dollar allotment has been in years past. This way, you will be able to meet your budget and even have some wiggle room if the entitlement dollar amount has increased this year. Remember, the amount of funds in your PAL account is the total of lunches served in the previous year multiplied by the current entitlement rate.Be sure to take into consideration any changes that have occurred within your district during the last year, and follow USDA FNS closely for information about the release of the entitlement dollar amounts per meal for the coming school year. Look over the “new foods available” list (provided at the beginning of this post) to see if you would like to make any substitutions from menus and meals in the past year.
  2. Analyze your district for trends, top selling items, and the unsuccessful item “duds”.It’s important that you know your district well when planning for USDA Foods selections. You should know how certain menu items perform with students in your district. Demographic and regional factors can have a significant impact on children’s taste buds, so just because something is flying off the line in New York doesn’t mean the same will be true for schools in Texas. Take this information into consideration when deciding which USDA Foods to order in the coming school year.
  3. Plan your menu cycles according to USDA Foods available.This is a huge tip for child nutrition programs that utilize menu cycles. Make sure that when your district is planning its menu cycles for the coming school year, you actively refer to the upcoming year’s USDA Foods Available list.It is absolutely a school nutrition industry best practice to plan your daily menu offerings based off of what you can order from USDA Foods first, instead of deciding which USDA Food items to order based on a menu cycle that you’ve already produced.Through this careful planning method, you are ensuring that your district uses as much of its entitlement funds as possible, before dipping into your district’s own pocket for food costs.
  4. Conduct a second-half reassessment in January/February to spot improvement opportunities.You should always be keeping an eye on your district’s usage of the USDA Food items. However, after about halfway through the school year, it’s highly encouraged that you complete a very thorough and detailed look at your current entitlement account level, past orders, production runs, and future planned menus. Through this detailed analysis, you will be able to see if there are opportunities to incorporate more USDA Food items into the menu, possibly by replacing certain local ingredients for similar USDA Food items. It will get your program back on track for a fiscally responsible year, and will provide a new benchmark level from which to plan the remainder of the school year.

Track It Separately: USDA Food Items Should Be Tracked Separately from Local Orders in Your Inventory

If you’ve been in this industry long enough, you know that at one time, commodity items had to be stored completely separate from locally ordered items. One shelf of green bean cans here, and another shelf of exactly the same green beans over there…it was more trouble than it was worth.

While the USDA has since relaxed that requirement, you should still be tracking your USDA Foods orders, receives, and usage in a separate category within your school nutrition inventory management system.Tracking USDA Foods separately allows you, as the district nutrition supervisor, to gain clear and unfiltered access into each site’s commodity ordering and usage levels. You can easily identify problem sites that have a tendency to over-order, or those that don’t order commodities often enough.

[Pro tip: Educating your site managers about the importance of utilizing the available USDA Foods is vital, so don’t forget to include a training session or two on that topic during the summer months.]

Additionally, tracking USDA Foods separately within your inventory software system will allow you to easily assess how much of your district’s entitlement account has been used, paving the way for improvement opportunities during the remainder of the school year.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, making commodities work for your district is mostly about constant evaluation, and finding opportunities to improve your district’s usage of its entitlement funding. After all, if you don’t use it…you lose it!

For more tips on getting the most out of your commodities, check out this blog post. Looking for a way to simplify your commodity management? We can help! Check out PrimeroEdge Food Distribution to see how we can link you with your State Agency to help you (like we help Georgia DOE and Fresh From Florida) in forecasting and getting the most out of your USDA Foods.

Is your district good at managing its entitlement account? How much funding do you have left at the end of the school year? Don’t worry…I’m not here to judge! It’s all about improvement. Let me know in the comments below, and we’ll get a discussion going!