November 6, 2013

The ABC's of Purchasing School Food


The word can strike fear in the hearts of many child nutrition professionals. It’s a daunting word with many rules and no-no’s attached. With good reason, the process of purchasing school food is highly regulated. The funds are attached to USDA reimbursements and must follow federal regulations. We’ve broken down the dense regulatory language into the ABC’s (or OFC’s) of procurement. Follow these three principles for a strong foundation for school purchasing in your district.



Think of your purchasing process as an open book. Being transparent about what your district needs and what you expect will allow the right information to be available to all interested vendors. To determine if your district’s process is open, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your district share all pertinent information (bid specs, delivery expectations, quantities) with all of your vendors?
  • Does your proposal very clearly outline expectations and deadlines?
  • Does your district broadly advertise the bid process to reach as many vendors as possible?



It’s a simple concept that we learned as children. “It’s not fair!” Well, in purchasing, it needs to be fair. This means that all vendors have a fair and equal shot at gaining your district’s business. Some basics that make it fair include:

  • Considering other vendors besides the ones you know or currently work with.
  • Writing contracts that are in the best interest of your district, not what the vendor has provided or suggested.
  • Evaluating products and pricing in a systematic way, rather than just going with a “favorite” vendor or the “nice guy.”
  • Ensuring that every vendor has the same information at the same time. This means all conversations during the bid process need to remain neutral and no “inside information” should be shared.



This concept applies to vendors competing for your business and it means that your district’s process needs to allow all companies and brands to enter the playing field. Some specific questions to ask to make sure your district’s process is competitive:

  • Does your district always buy the same brands?
  • Is your district willing to evaluate and consider similar brands or products?
  • Has your district written product specifications so that all manufacturers can compete for your business?
  • Are your district’s special needs for ingredients realistic?

No matter how your products are delivered, the OFC’s listed above should serve as the backbone of your district’s purchasing process. Ask yourself the questions above to make sure the open, fair, and competitive principles are being followed.