Six districts form super alliance for school food purchases, best practices

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Orlando band together to improve quality of items served to students.

The menu every district served on the same day was
roasted chicken, brown rice with black beans, broccoli

Size matters. That’s the concept behind the Urban School Food Alliance, a cooperative buying group consisting of New York City public schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, Dallas Independent School District, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla. 

The general idea is that with enough buying power—together these districts serve more than 3 million students each day—the foodservice industry and general public will take notice.

“There wasn’t an opportunity to focus on our issues and how we can really manage scale more effectively, so we came up with this Urban School Food Alliance where we could band together like a co-op, agree on joint specs on issues from a purchasing point of view and combine our purchasing power to push quality up and price down,” says Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer for school support services for New York City public schools.

Each district in the alliance has taken on one aspect. Los Angeles is in charge of the marketing and communication, New York is heading up the group’s specs on chicken, Miami is working on a new compostable paper-based plate and Dallas is focusing on cutlery.

The timing of the alliance, formed earlier this year, couldn’t have come at a better time, Goldstein says. With all the new regulations required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids’ Act, industry members have been forced to reconfigure many of the products they sell the schools.

“We need our industry partners. We need them to be engaged and be able to stay in business,” says Dennis Barrett, executive of School Food for New York schools. “Ninety-three percent of all the school districts in the United States are 3,000 students or less. A lot of those school districts are writing their own specs and wanting the distributor to bring a sample. It becomes very costly.

“The markup to the K-12 market is only 2% to 3%, where the retail markup is 15% to 25%. It’s becoming more difficult for a lot of the industry to be able to stay in this K-12 business. Seven or eight years ago, the president of Tyson told me they had 77 different specifications just for chicken nuggets. And every time they changed the plates it cost them $50,000. They tried to meet everyone’s needs. Are we in a day and age where we can continue to do that? I think this alliance, if there’s something that we can do to have a really good product at a really good price that others would want to buy into, it may be an opportunity to help the entire industry, both K-12 and our vendors as well.”

Barrett adds that while no one in the industry has said it, he thinks the general feeling about the alliance is, what took so long?

David Binkle, director of foodservices for LAUSD, agrees. “Partnerships in business are natural,” Binkle says. “It’s unnatural to go out and line-item bid every single food item that you have. For the vendors, there’s a lot more vested interest when you’re talking about $100,000 and $200,000 contracts. There’s also a bigger interest from the company itself. We’ve got Tyson to change the way they cut chicken. We wouldn’t have seen that had we not had the partnership.”

Goldstein notes that the alliance members are not putting out a joint bid as a group because of local laws and regulations. The members will instead be sharing specs and information.

The what-took-so-long sentiment isn’t singular to industry members. Until recently, Barrett was the foodservice director at LAUSD, working with Binkle. “We’ve talked back and forth with each other as peers for years,” Barrett says. “We determined that we would get together and do something more formally,” he says of the alliance.

The alliance isn’t solely focused on its purchasing power. Another big goal of the group is to showcase school meals in a positive light.

“The knock on school food is the image of what we’re serving is the cheapest crap that we can put out there,” Binkle says. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. The alliance is giving each of us the leverage to say, ‘we are doing the right thing, we are serving extremely healthy food and we’re doing it in a way where we’re all supporting each other.’”

To emphasize this, the alliance members served the same lunch menu March 20. The menu was roasted chicken, brown rice with black beans, broccoli, milk and fruit.

“[Serving the same menus] shows we can achieve things,” Goldstein says. “We coordinated the menu and had 3 million kids eating the same thing on the same day because we came together as a group. Now we’re going to take that same energy and focus and bring it to accomplish [our other goals, like the compostable paper-based plate].”

Goldstein says other districts have expressed an interest to join the alliance. He says before they think about growing in size, the alliance wants to ensure it can successfully meet its goals.

Binkle agrees: “We’re not trying to exclude groups. What we’re trying to do is get it all laid out in terms of a foundation so it’s sustainable. We’re trying to make change and not be shy about it.” 

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