Child nutrition directors use USDA Foods to create budget-friendly, from-scratch items

Cooking from scratch is one of the big trends in school foodservice. With budgets slashed and prices rising, producing items in house can be a fiscal challenge. Some child nutrition directors say taking advantage of USDA Foods, formerly known as commodities, is one way to cook from scratch without busting the budget.

FoodService Director - K-12 Spotlight - commodities - Salida Union School DistrictBilly Reid, director of child nutrition services at the Salida Union School District in California, uses USDA proteins to create center-of-the-plate entrées. Reid estimates that he spends about 50% of his commodity allocated dollars to purchase proteins. “We bring in as much protein that we can cook ourselves [as possible],” Reid says.

One of Reid’s favorite menu items is a pulled pork sandwich, which is made by slow roasting USDA pork for two days. Reid’s staff also makes the sauce for the pork in house.

“I could go out into the private market and buy a good barbecue pulled pork center-of-the-plate entrée,” he says. “Let’s say it’s 50 cents [per serving]. I’m serving 4,000 meals. It’s going to cost me $2,000 to purchase a decent product. If I go through the USDA commodity program, I can do that for 10 cases of raw pork that we cook ourselves, not including cost of entitlement, for $3.25 a case. That’s $32.50. It costs me approximately $17.50 to make the sauce from scratch. I now did the same thing that if I’d bought it on the private market it would’ve cost me $2,000, I just did it for $50.”

In addition to purchasing raw pork from the USDA, Reid also brings in turkey roasts and roast beef, which he uses in a variety of applications including sandwiches.

Reid isn’t opposed to purchasing precooked and seasoned meats from the USDA. He uses these proteins in speed-scratch cooked items. For example, Reid uses USDA fajita chicken, which is delivered precooked, to create different menu items.

FoodService Director - K-12 Spotlight - commodities - Salida Union School District“The chicken fajita meat is real popular because you can do so much with it,” Reid says. “We use that chicken meat in stir-fries, rice bowls and on salads. In foodservice I don’t think there are too many original ideas anymore. Half of the things I do I’ve stolen from other directors. I see what they are doing and I come back here and put my own little twist on it. There is from scratch and speed scratch. I do both. We bring in raw product and there are also some really great recipes that I have, like the chicken fajita. You take that chicken fajita meat and put a lot of fresh vegetables in with it. The fajita meat is already fully cooked. Then you can either make or purchase some really nice sauces to put on top of that. We’ve done both. We have a teriyaki sauce that we make ourselves. There is a really low-sodium sauce we purchase.”

Reid says he purchases many of the same items from the USDA year after year such as fajita chicken, roast beef and turkey roasts. “There are standard items [we purchase each year from the USDA] because we know there is so much that we can do with them, and there are certain things that we take knowing that we can come up with recipes when it comes in,” he says. “A lot of what I do is, when Jack in the Box is advertising a teriyaki bowl and it’s all over the TV, I’ll put a teriyaki bowl on the menu. They do the advertising, the kids see it and I put a healthier version on. We’ll use brown rice and lean chicken and get the sauces with the lower sodium. These fast food restaurants spend millions of dollars on research, so I find it and apply it to my cafeterias.”

Reid also diverts some of his USDA Foods to vendors for processing, although the amount of product he diverts is relatively small. Reid diverts chicken for nuggets, beef for hamburgers and cheese for pizza to manufacturers. “Not that there is anything wrong with processing and manufacturing products, we wouldn’t be able to do anything we do without vendors, but if I can produce 4,000 portions of a very good barbecue pulled pork sandwich, the pork for $50 using USDA foods why would I want to go out and spend $2,000 on a vended product? I don’t see myself ever as 100% scratch cooking, as much as I’d love to,” Reid says. “Kids like kid-type food and vendors have been great at coming up with healthier versions of those foods. Foodservice is a participation-driven budget and you have to be ever mindful of that. I think USDA Foods is a great way of being mindful of your budget.”

One new thing Reid is doing this year is purchasing more fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned products from the USDA.