An inside look at the USDA and Urban School Food Alliance’s procurement partnership

Dr. Katie Wilson shares how the team’s new partnership with the USDA will help schools tackle their biggest procurement pain points.
Students eating lunch in the cafeteria
The Urban School Food Alliance has teamed up with the USDA to improve the school nutrition procurement process. | Photo: Shutterstock

With over 40 years in school nutrition, Dr. Katie Wilson is no stranger to the procurement challenges school nutrition operators face on a daily basis. 

As the Executive Director for the Urban School Food Alliance (USFA), a nonprofit made up of 17 member school districts that aims to procure high-quality food for schools, Wilson has approached the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to see if there were ways the USFA could lend a hand in improving the procurement process for operators throughout the country. 

“We always said we have to fix this, but we have to really sit down and look at it from a broad, open perspective and stop using band aids and bubble gum,” says Wilson. “In talking with USDA, I kept saying, ‘look, there's got to be a better way to do this. I just need a chance to pilot some things. We want to make a difference.’”

Wilson and the team will be given a chance to help solve the school nutrition procurement puzzle through a new three-year partnership with the USDA that aims to simplify the procurement process for school nutrition operators and get good quality food into school kitchens. 

Procurement miscommunication 

Rules for school nutrition procurement vary widely depending on a district’s location, making the procurement process hard to navigate. 

“There's the federal regulations, there’s the states’ regulations that are all different, and then, the local districts can have different regulations as well,” says Wilson. “And all of these things are not procurement rules that are good for food.”

With so many different rules, it’s easy for operators to misunderstand what the regulations are when it comes to the bid process, Wilson says. States and local districts also have their own rules which can vary from one another causing further confusion. One state, for example, requires operators to list all the USDA Foods on their bid and their price but not the item quantity. 

“That's not a bid,” says Wilson. “You have to know what the quantity is.” 

Another problem which school nutrition is “notorious for,” Wilson says, is not treating a bid as a business deal. Some operators will accept a bid and then end up not buying that product. 

“If you send out a bid and you accept a bid, you have to understand that that is a business partnership, and you should be required to buy what you bid,” she says.  

Untangling the procurement web 

With so much miscommunication surrounding school nutrition procurement, the first phase of the partnership will be an investigative period where the USFA will analyze federal, state and local procurement rules. As they go through the current regulation, their goal is to identify any confusing language or other barriers to the procurement process. The results from the investigation will then be compiled into a report. 

The investigative phase also includes a training component, where Wilson and her team will start to research what procurement resources are available to operators and how they can be improved upon. 

One of the resources Wilson plans to offer through the partnership is a training program called Team Up that she helped develop when she was at the Institute of Child Nutrition. 

Team Up is a peer-to-peer mentoring program that provides training on certain topics, including forecasting and writing bids. In the coming months, Team Up trainings will be held  throughout the country, Wilson says, and each of the sessions will be highly interactive. 

“[You’re not going] to sit through an hour lecture,” she says. “You're going to bring your numbers, you're going to sit down and you're going to work through it.”

School nutrition operators will also have access to the USFA procurement toolkit and additional resources on the USFA website. 

Wilson stresses that even though the USFA is made up of large, urban school districts, each of these tools and resources will be geared towards districts of all shapes and sizes, no matter how many meals they serve or where they’re located.

“It’s going to be about everybody,” she says “We're just the convening group that's going to be working on this.” 

The USFA hopes to have the investigative phase wrapped up by next summer. From there, Wilson would like to work with PhD students at a business school to use the information they collected during the investigative phase to create a school procurement business plan. 

“We're just looking for a university that's really interested in this and we want to work with the business school to help write what a good procurement business plan would look like,” says Wilson. 

At the end of the partnership, the business plan would then be submitted for discussion to the USDA and Congress to see how the rules and regulations surrounding school procurement could be updated to make the process easier for school nutrition professionals. 

Feedback on the partnership has been positive so far, Wilson says, and she’s hopeful that this will be the first step in improving what has been a messy and confusing process for operators. 

“This really opens the door to allow practitioners to lead this change,” she says.



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