Buy American Extra Advice and Examples

October 2018’s To Your Credit article, “Buy American; Eat American” by Senior Editor Beth Roessner serves as a primer on the Buy American requirement for federal school meal programs. Of course, with just four pages in the magazine and complicated rules and regulations comprising much more space than that, SN acknowledges that you will need to read the physical documents provided by USDA and, perhaps, do some further supplemental reading. As our own article was overflowing with research, below you will find some extra advice on crediting and incorporating fruit into your operations.

“Creditable Components”

Buy American rules apply to what’s called “the creditable food component,” which is one of the food groups comprising a reimbursable meal. You know these on the meal pattern: meat/meat alternates, vegetables, fruits, grains and fluid milk.

So, does this mean there are other food categories in a school meals operation that don’t have to be bought domestically? It would seem that the law allows for the non-domestic procurement of such food items as spices or condiments, but even the experts are less-than-confident about such regulatory nuances. In fact, a debate rages as to whether bottled water should be held to Buy American restrictions. It is not a creditable food, but some SFAs have reported USDA decisions that prohibit procurement of, say, a Canadian bottled water.

How should a school nutrition procurement officer respond to such administrative mysteries? Do the best you can. Work with vendor partners to supply documentation that makes your case. As noted in the main article, reach out to your state agency representatives to be sure you are all on the same page regarding interpretation. 

The Fruit Conundrum

Students love fruit. (Actually, most adults like the sweet stuff, too!) There’s a lot of pressure from parent groups and other child health advocates to serve more fresh fruits in school meal programs, but geography and the school year are complications that can’t be ignored. A California school is going to have a much easier time getting fresh, domestic strawberries in February than its snow-covered counterpart in Missouri.

USDA is not likely to have much sympathy for that Missouri director seeking an exemption to buy fresh strawberries from Mexico for Valentine’s Day—especially when she can get the tasty fruit in various shelf-stable forms, including frozen, canned and packed in single-portion cups.

Before you invest time in the paperwork to apply for an exception, consider your alternatives. Can you use a different format such as frozen berries? What about a different fruit altogether? Maybe you should consider a wintry recipe twist featuring pears or apples and some warming spices?

And speaking of pears, these teardrop-shaped fruits are common packed in cans and snack cups. While some may insist that the healthiest options are packed in 100% juice, USDA concedes that this can be cost prohibitive for U.S. farmers. To produce enough juice to preserve the fruit, most growers need to add up to $1 per case to their bill. On its own USDA Foods Available list, the agency turns to fruits packed in extra-light syrup instead.

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