Improve USDA Foods

The Physicians Committee

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USDA beef makes up 90 percent of all beef served in the school lunch program, and 55 percent of USDA beef is further processed into charbroiled patties, crumbles, and meatballs before it reaches children’s lunches. i

USDA spent an estimated $845 million on commodity meat and cheese (FY 2013) ii;  the majority is processed into the worst products: pizza, chicken nuggets, sausages, beef patties, and meatballs. iii 

Processing has never been more popular. USDA spent an estimated $650 million, or half of the total value of USDA Foods, for further processing. Meat and cheese make up the largest proportion (65 percent) of USDA purchases by schools, yet they only make up 30 percent of USDA Foods (FY 2013). iv

Fruits and vegetables in both fresh and processed forms make up only 32 percent of USDA purchases, yet account for 50 percent of USDA Foods (FY 2013). v

Less than one-fourth of USDA products available for schools are fresh fruits and vegetables. vi

Improve USDA Foods

USDA Foods (commodity foods for use in the National School Lunch Program) must provide healthful foods to children by leveraging USDA’s purchasing power and direct purchases. USDA purchases should facilitate the consumption of healthy foods that are lacking in children’s diets—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for providing nutritious meals for over 30 million children through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) every day. At the same time, it has the conflicting role to boost profits for agricultural industries that produce unhealthful products that contribute to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Schools participating in the NSLP can either be reimbursed in cash for each lunch served or can receive USDA commodity products (USDA Foods). Schools can use USDA products for the School Breakfast Program but the value of the commodity products they receive is determined by the number of school lunches served. Each year, USDA offers a growing number of products including the following: fruits, vegetables, legumes, meats, cheese, fruit juices, vegetable shortening and oils, peanut products, rice, pasta products, flour, and other grain products.

USDA currently provides more than 220 different commodity items valued at over $1.3 billion (FY 2013), making the commodity program the largest single source of food for schools and an enticing business for hundreds of producers and processors across the country. vii 

Recommendations for further improving USDA Foods

1. USDA must correct the imbalance in use of USDA Foods by increasing the amount of fresh, minimally processed plant-based foods and bulk plant-based food for processing, and provide technical assistance to schools to increase purchasing of these products.

For every one fruit or vegetable purchased, two meat or cheese items are purchased. This ratio of fresh or minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes to meat and dairy products is in direct conflict with widely accepted nutrition standards as well as the USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encourage greater consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and reduced consumption of products high in saturated fat and cholesterol. USDA should correct this imbalance by:

  • Spending a larger portion of its budget on healthful, plant-based foods such as fresh, frozen, dried, and canned produce, whole-grain pastas and bread products, and legumes. In addition to their high fiber and low saturated fat and cholesterol content, these foods should also be low-sodium and low-sugar (low or no added salt or sugar).
  • Adding tofu and soy yogurt to USDA Foods. While plant-based protein alternatives to meat such as tofu and soy yogurt are reimbursable in the school lunch program, none are provided as USDA Foods which would help bring down the costs of these options for schools.
  • Spending a larger portion of its budget on more healthful processed alternatives such as ready-made bean and vegetable burgers and processed soy food products. USDA recently added bulk pinto beans to USDA Foods for further processing into low-fat, high-fiber bean burritos and burgers. viii USDA’s commodity beef that is 85 percent lean can still provide at minimum 7 grams of fat, 38 milligrams of cholesterol, and no dietary fiber in a burger patty, ix compared with canned beans that can provide up to the same amount of protein with 0.4 grams of fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, and 6 grams of dietary fiber in a bean patty.  x Increasing plant-based options for processing will help to ensure that end products meet nutrition standards just as reimbursable meals and competitive foods must meet certain nutrition standards.
  • Providing technical assistance and financial incentives with State Distributing Agencies and Recipient Agencies and collaborating with food processors to promote consumption of fresh and processed plant-based foods.

2. USDA must ensure processed USDA Foods meet the same nutrition standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

Processing is not regulated for nutritional quality and often involves adding fat, sugar, and sodium to commodity products. Unlike reimbursable school meals and competitive foods that must meet nutrition standards, USDA Foods that are further processed end up being far too high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and devoid of important micronutrients and dietary fiber. USDA should engage in rulemaking to align end-products with the Dietary Guidelines for nutritional quality.

3. Congress must increase funding for technical assistance, kitchen resources, and the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (DOD Fresh).

  • Congress must increase funding for technical assistance to commodity agencies. Budget cuts over the years have left both state and federal commodity agencies without funds to provide adequate training, technical assistance, and nutrition education with which school districts might improve the nutritional quality of the meals they serve.
  • Congress must increase funding for kitchen infrastructure. The most common equipment inadequacy noted by school food authorities was equipment needed to provide more fruits and vegetable items on daily menus and to offer a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, with the majority needing inexpensive items such as utensils and kitchen carts.
  • Congress must increase funding for the DOD Fresh to improve program effectiveness and to increase the distribution of perishable and local produce such as fresh fruits and vegetables and single-serve nutritionally equivalent soy milks and soy yogurt. DOD Fresh’s mandatory base appropriation of $50 million per year is not sufficient to meet the demand from participating schools given the remarkable growth from eight states to 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.

For more information about USDA Foods and our recommendations, please see “Improving USDA Foods in the National School Lunch Program.

For more information on increasing plant-based options in the school lunch program, see the Resources for Schools section.


i Food Research Action Council. Commodity Foods and the Nutritional Quality of the National School Lunch Program: Historical Role, Current Operations, and Future Potential. 2008.
ii Castro L. United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods: State of Affairs. Figures are based on USDA NSLP purchasing data from FY2013: 23% livestock, 22% poultry, 18% dairy, 1% eggs, 1% fish for a total of 65%.
iii Food and Nutrition Service. Food Distribution Fact Sheet: USDA Foods further Processing. 2012.
iv United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods Available List for Schools and Institutions SY 2013. 2012.
v Ibid.
vi United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods Available List for Schools and Institutions SY 2015. 2014.
vii Castro L. United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods: State of Affairs.
viii Ibid.
ix United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods Fact Sheet for Schools & Child Nutrition Institutions: 110349 / 110350–BEEF, PATTIES,85/15, RAW, FROZEN, IQF, 40 LB. February 25, 2013
x United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Foods Fact Sheet for Schools & Child Nutrition Institutions: 100381–BEANS, GREAT NORTHERN, DRY, WHOLE, 25 LB. 2012.
xi PEW Charitable Trusts. Serving Healthy School Meals: Kitchen Equipment. 2013.