Time to Buy

New nutrition standards established for school meals—and items made available on an a la carte basis—present numerous challenges for both operators and vendors. Among these is the basic process of new product development and/or reformulation. How do school nutrition programs gain access to products that will allow them to stay in compliance with federal regulations? In “From ‘A-ha!’ to ‘Mmmmmm, Mmmmmm” (May 2014), author Barry Sackin, SNS, explores many of the basic steps that manufacturers serving the school segment must take to bring acceptable products to market.

Among these steps is the challenge presented by the vastly different way that schools purchase products than virtually any other foodservice segment. First, and perhaps most important, is the fact that many schools smartly build menus on utilizing their USDA Foods entitlement. [Editors’ Note: See “Being Accountable,” Commodity Exchange,” November 2012, for details about assessing the value of commodities in your program.] But the USDA Foods order cycle is out of synch with school procurement. Let’s work backward in the calendar.

  • For the school year starting in August or September, schools manage their procurements (bids) in late spring or early summer. So, most bids go out between May and July.
  • Many of these bids include items that use USDA Foods, either through commodity processing or requesting commercial items that are the same as the commodity-processed items they request. USDA Foods orders (i.e., requests) that direct the diversion of USDA Foods to further processors are due from the districts to the state office in February to April (depending on the state).
  • To effectively request USDA Foods, many school districts must plan their menus for the followingschool year as early as December.
  • Thus, to be included on the school menu for, say, School Year 2015-16, vendors must present products in October and November 2014—almost a full year before those menus will be served.
  • Many companies choose to show these brand-new items even earlier, at SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) in July, in order to take advantage of the thousands of operators who come to this event. Schools may choose to get test samples of an item to try with students in the coming year, before committing to adding it permanently on the regular menu in the following school year.
  • To have new products fully developed and tested for ANC, the company must start the process—identifying the need and potential market for a new item, developing and testing the product and all the things discussed in the main article—very early in the calendar year.

In short, food manufacturers are really working two years ahead of the point when a product hits the market. That’s why the shifting landscape of the new menu planning regulations has posed such an enormous challenge to schools and the companies that provide food items for them.

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