POLICY BRIEF: Healthy School Meals Made with USDA Foods

Published on Sep 30, 2014 in Child Nutrition, School-Aged Children

9.30.14 CFPA has issued a policy brief urging federal and state leaders to better support the fresh preparation of school meals with minimally processed USDA Foods. The brief is accompanied by a summary and recommendations for school districts.

This policy brief presents principal research findings and policy recommendations from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research study that examined the nutritional content and cost of preparing school meal entrees by cooking with minimally processed USDA Foods (previously known as “commodities”).  In comparison with entrees that were diverted to manufacturers for processing, entrees that were freshly prepared with USDA Foods were often healthier, and were made at a comparable cost. While scratch cooking requires more labor, these higher labor costs were offset by the considerably lower food costs.

This research was conducted in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Atkins Center for Weight and Health and the Sarah Samuels Center for Public Health Research & Evaluation. The research findings are available in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. link

POLICY BRIEF: Freshly Prepared, Healthy and Cost-Effective School Meals Made with USDA Foods PDF

SCHOOL DISTRICT SUMMARY: Improve School Meal Quality While Cutting Costs PDF



“Utilizing USDA Foods allows us to reduce the use of processed foods and expand our use of locally grown fruits and vegetables.”

        – Rodney Taylor, Nutrition Services Director, Riverside Unified School District

 Riverside Unified School District is California’s 15th largest school district, with 43,000 students enrolled at 47 schools. Riverside USD serves almost 34,000 meals daily, with 62% of students eligible for free/reduced price meals. By eliminating commercially processed foods such as chicken nuggets and patties, they are able to offer healthier selections of higher quality food items. They use USDA Foods roasted chicken to prepare Rotisserie Chicken with rub seasonings and sauces to enhance the flavor. Riverside USD’s Grilled Ranch, Lemon Herb, BBQ and Sesame Teriyaki Chicken are featured in the photo above.

 Using USDA Foods in their menus- such as fajita meat, tuna, diced chicken, diced ham, dry mixed fruit, raisins, and cheese- allows them to reduce their use of processed foods and expand their use of locally grown fruits and vegetables. They are able to present new items such as ciabatta bread and spinach wraps featured in their Fresh Express and Signature Lines created by Chef Ryan Douglas.  These items were introduced as a result of requests from students who were accustomed to Farmers’Market Salad Bars in elementary school and wanted a similar experience in middle and high school.

 The Farmers’Market Salad Bars provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily.  The salad bars feature USDA Foods tuna, diced ham and chicken, which offset the costs of the labor-intensive fresh produce. Riverside USD’s ‘Salad Bar First’design in elementary cafeterias positions salad bars as the first choice visible to students. This, along with kid-friendly marketing, highlights the variety of fruits and vegetables available and gives students access to healthy offerings they might not receive at home.

 Riverside USD presents all new items to students in taste tests before adding them to the menus. They can truly say their school meals are all “kid tested and approved.”


The California Department of Education administers the USDA Foods Program in the state. link

USDA has been expanding the variety of food items available through the USDA Foods Program. “USDA Foods: The Ultimate Shopping List” gives insight about the review process for developing the USDA Foods list. PDF

Stakeholders are welcomed to provide feedback by sending comments or questions to the USDA Foods Program.

Questions? Contact Tracey Patterson at 510.433.1122 ext. 101.



Was this resource helpful?

Please consider supporting Nourish California's work.

Your 100% tax-deductible donation is an investment in our research and supports our mission to give California’s critically under-resourced communities the nutrition they desperately need.