Oregon’s School Lunches: how to buy?

Rick Sherman is the Farm to School and School Garden Coordinator at Oregon’s Dept. of Education (ODE). He used to work for Sodexo in Eugene, so is a wealth of knowledge, full of details on how to actually make a purchase for school lunches! Rick is very tall and an energetic guy. Easy to talk with. I work with him quite a lot as ODA and ODE collaborate on several projects.

First of all, he prefaced our interview by saying a food service management company (FSMC) (like Sodexo) is slightly different from a self-operated school district. He gave me the contact information for someone who understands that part of school lunch. To hire a management company, a school district sends out an RFP (Request for Proposal) and then the lowest bidder wins the contract. Within the company, they also have contracts with distributors, such as Sysco or Duck.

If I approached him back when he worked in Eugene, asking if he wanted to do Boat to School, he would go through a distributor. For example, he would ask a product rep at a company such as Sysco to stock Oregon rockfish. Or, Rick’s other option would be to buy directly from a fisher, and asking the fisher to stock it at Sysco. This option is a little more work because he has to make many calls to each fishermen whereas if he hires Sysco to do it, they will find the product for him. If Sysco wouldn’t buy because, say, there wasn’t enough volume, then Rick could do a special order, as a one time thing.

Another benefit of going through a food distributor is that the company guarantees that the food is clean, good, safe, and that there is no liability put on the district (because distributor holds insurance). The distributor can cover liability costs if something happens, such as a recall of the food.  Distributors also work with farmers who are GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. They do audits with the farmers to check things like hand washing, cleanliness of vehicles.

I was curious why the cost wasn’t lower to buy directly from the fisher as opposed to hiring a company to make those extra calls and stock the product. Well, in Oregon 30 school districts use Sodexo. Thus, the company can make huge bulk purchases for the state, using their buying power to lower costs.  Cutting out the middle man doesn’t necessarily make the cost cheaper if Sodexo makes a large purchase. (However, while Boat to School is in early stages, I can’t imagine that many schools would be able to to serve fish.) Granted, farmers can often get a better price selling at a farmers market, or selling overseas because of that and do not want to sell to schools.

Stay away from shellfish! Schools would have to be SO careful serving shellfish. Rick isn’t sure what the rule is for Oregon schools serving shellfish. It could potentially be done, but the school would have to be really careful. I knew that, so we talked of fillets instead. The type and form of the fish is important. Schools would prefer to have the fish processed in a certain way so it is ready to serve. Frozen fillets would probably be really feasible. He said, the next thing I should find out is the price. Would Whiting, the fish people keep pointing me to, be a possibility? His total price per meal was about $0.80-$0.90/meal/kid for all grades in his whole district, including milk which costs about $0.22.

“Did you ever serve fish?” I asked.

“Years ago, we used to have fish sticks and fish sandwiches on the menu. Gosh, a whiting sandwich would be tasty!  That is exciting and worth looking into” he said.

Finally, commodities are another option for procuring fish at a reasonable cost. I recently heard that the North Powder Charter School is going to serve catfish that came from commodities! How exotic. The FSMCs qualify for commodities, however they have to credit the market value of the commodities back to the school district, which can make some commodities too expensive for them to serve. The commodity program can be a great source to obtain certain foods, however the Director really has to do his or her homework to ensure that they’re really getting a good deal.  For some center-of-the-plate items, the FSMC is able to get a better price through a distributor.

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