USDA Commodities and Healthy School Lunches
May 15, 2006 -- As school nutrition professionals do their part to offer healthy school meals with more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lower fat items, they have an important ally in the US Department of Agriculture Commodity Program.
The Food Distribution Division of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), with State Agency partners, coordinate the distribution of commodities to more than 94,000 public and private nonprofit schools that provide healthy meals to students. The USDA's Child Nutrition Commodity Programs provide nutritious, USDA-purchased food to school nutrition programs and support American agricultural producers.
Since 2000, the changes in the commodity program have been quite revolutionary. Food items now boast improved overall quality, because USDA has reexamined what it buys from growers and product purchase specifications. USDA also carefully considers how items can complement menus and commercial purchases. The government is demanding that the highest-quality foods go to children.
Many myths remain about the quality of the foods provided through the commodity program, however today’s commodities are an essential part of a healthy school meal:
Myth: USDA commodities are high fat, highly processed products.
Fact: USDA has made significant progress in reducing the fat, sodium and added sugar in commodity foods. While some processed items are available, almost all are available in a raw or bulk form in the initial stages of processing (for example tankers of orange juice, 30 pound cartons of frozen strawberries.) Commodity food items produced, processed and distributed through the USDA commodity program are substantially better than ever. Among the changes:
- Fat and sodium have been reduced in processed commodities.
- Ground beef was reduced to an average 15% fat, as compared to an average 30% fat content in the fast food industry.
- Commodity canned fruits are only bought with light syrup and fruit juice verses heavy syrup.
- A wide variety of fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetable products are offered. Over 50% of commodities bought are grains, fruits and vegetables.
Myth: Schools are a dumping ground for surplus food.
Fact: Most States have request driven ordering systems and no longer allocate and push commodities on districts. USDA does not send product to a school unless the school ordered it. For most products, USDA does not even purchase the item unless a recipient agency (school) is willing to take the product.
Myth: All that’s available through the commodity program are high fat meats.
Fact: Of the over 100 different food products that the USDA has available for the current school year as commodities to support the National School Lunch Program, over half are fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, nuts, or other non-meat or non-dairy foods. Individual items include rolled oats, whole-wheat flour, brown rice and fresh pears.
Myth: Schools cannot get fresh fruits and vegetables through the commodity program.
Fact: In addition to fresh apples, potatoes, grapefruit, oranges and pears available through the USDA commodity program, some commodity dollars are available to purchase produce from the Department of Defense (DOD) Fresh Program. A few of the 874 currently high-quality domestic products available from DOD Fresh include various types and pack sizes of: lettuce, salad mix, white mushrooms, broccoli, alfalfa sprouts, watermelon, apples, oranges, lemons, honeydew, nectarines, kiwi fruit, strawberries, pineapples, pears, celery sticks, kale, cantaloupe, red grapes, collard greens, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, tomatoes, peaches, spinach, radishes and bananas. States can and do limit the types of products their schools may order and distribution method may vary.
Myth: USDA commodities are not as safe as commercial products.
Fact: Commodities are at least as safe as commercially available food products, if not more. Some USDA products have more stringent microbiological performance standards. All USDA products are produced in plants with a great food safety inspection presence as well as quality assurance.
Myth: Schools are being forced to take irradiated ground beef.
Fact: Schools have been given the option of ordering irradiated ground beef if they want to menu it. To date no schools have ordered irradiated ground beef and none plan on doing so.
Myth: USDA commodities are free to schools.
Fact: More often than not, schools have to pay a fee to the state or state contractor in order to receive commodities. The fee serves to offset costs of in-state distribution and storage and program administration.
To learn more about the commodity program – see Related Links.