The USDA has just published, in a final rule, language on the establishment of “geographic preference” for school food program purchases. While it is safe to say far flung commercial shippers of fresh produce won't break into handsprings over this rule, it is hard to say how "big a deal" it is. It is optional, after all.


What does it mean, exactly? In general, it seems to allow for purchasing institutions (other than the USDA) for the school food programs to indicate a preference for locally grown food in their purchases. How much of an "advantage" does this give the local supplier? And, by the way, what is "local"?

How much, if any, will this regulation increase costs for schools? Will the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served at schools decline as a result of this regulation?

Will all food safety requirements that are imposed on commercial shippers be in place for “local” food?

Here is the summary of the rule, which is effective May 23:

From the USDA:

The 2008 Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to direct that the Secretary of Agriculture encourage institutions operating Child Nutrition Programs to purchase unprocessed locally grown and locally raised agricultural products. Effective October 1, 2008, institutions receiving funds through the Child Nutrition Programs may apply an optional geographic preference in the procurement of unprocessed locally grown or locally raised agricultural products. This provision applies to institutions in all of the Child Nutrition Programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Special Milk Program for Children, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program, as well as to purchases made for these programs by the Department of Defense Fresh Program. The provision also applies to State agencies making purchases on behalf of any of the aforementioned Child Nutrition Programs. The purpose of this rule is to finalize the geographic preference option in Child Nutrition Programs.

TK: Later, a clarifying remark:

From USDA:

This provision applies to institutions operating all of the Child Nutrition Programs, as well as to purchases made for these programs by the Department of Defense Fresh Program. The provision does not apply to purchases made by the Department. However, the provision does also apply to State agencies making purchases on behalf of the child nutrition programs.



TK: Here is more detail on how the “geographic preference” translates to purchases.



Procurement Issues

As indicated in the proposed rule, traditionally, a geographic preference established for procurements provides bidders located in a specified geographic area additional points or credit calculated during the evaluation of the proposals or bids received in response to a solicitation. A geographic preference is not a procurement setaside for bidders located in the specified geographic area, guaranteeing them a certain level or percentage of business.
In addition, including a geographic preference in a procurement does not preclude a bidder from outside the specified geographic area from competing for, and possibly being awarded, the contract subject to the geographic preference. Rather, a geographic preference is a tool that gives bidders in a specified geographic area a specific, defined advantage in the procurement process.


Geographic Area


By utilizing the statutorily established geographic preference option in Child Nutrition Programs, purchasing institutions, such as States, school food authorities, child care institutions and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sponsors, may specifically identify the geographic area within which unprocessed locally raised and locally grown agricultural products will originate. As indicated in the proposed rule, a responsive bidder would offer to provide unprocessed locally raised and locally grown agricultural products from the specifically identified geographic area. Fifty comments were received expressing support for the addition of combination packages of local, frozen, bagged vegetables such as zucchini and summer squash or fresh vegetable roast packages such as winter squash, turnips and beets. The commentors indicated that the ‘‘inherent character’’ of the vegetables is not being altered in any way when packaged in such a manner and fits within the ‘‘de minimus’’ handling and preparation requirements intended by Congress. In addition, such packaging conforms with the language of the statute with regard to presenting the product in usable form. The Department agrees with the comments and, therefore, has revised the definition of ‘‘unprocessed agricultural products’’ to include such combination packaged items in this final rule.


Frozen Products

One commenter indicated that frozen products should be included in the definition. The proposed rule included frozen products and the final rule retains frozen products as acceptable as a preservation technique. Two comments were received requesting that, in order to ensure that flash frozen products are included in the definition, the Department specify Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) as an acceptable preservation technique. The final rule retains inclusion of frozen products as acceptable but the Department does not wish to include specific techniques for freezing since technology changes over time and such specific references to technique may necessitate future amendments to the regulation in response to changes in technology.

One commenter wanted to allow pasteurized cider and pickled products to be considered ‘unprocessed’’ for purposes of specifying a geographic preference for procurement. While canned, pickled and pasteurized products are acceptable for service in the Child Nutrition Programs, such products would not be considered to be subject to a geographic procurement preference because heat processing does not meet the ‘‘de minimus’’ standard of processing established by Congress as assessed by the Department.


TK: Importantly, here is what the USDA says about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and whether frozen local vegetables qualify as "kosher" for the program. Thankfully, no.

From USDA:


The geographic preference procurement option is applicable to purchases made in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, 42 U.S.C. 1769a (FFVP). However, this provision shall only be applied within the context of the FFVP’s requirement that produce utilized in the program be fresh. The definition of ‘‘unprocessed locally grown or locally raised agricultural products’’ does not change the basic statutory requirement that only fresh produce may be purchased using funds for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.