School Meal Programs:

Sharing Information on Best Practices May Improve Programs' Operations

RCED-97-126: Published: May 21, 1997. Publicly Released: May 21, 1997.

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GAO reviewed: (1) state and school food authorities'(SFA) management and operating practices that are generally recognized as best practices by Department of Agriculture (USDA), state, and other officials; (2) whether some of these best practices could be replicated by other states and SFAs; and (3) the training and technical assistance USDA provides to the states and SFAs to help them better manage and operate the school meal programs.

GAO noted that: (1) states and SFAs have developed a number of best practices to improve the management and operation of the school meal programs, including the use of: (a) a computerized system to improve the efficiency of the commodity-ordering process; and (b) cooperative purchasing programs to buy food and nonfood items at competitive prices; (2) in addition, USDA has implemented a pilot project that uses the Department of Defense's (DOD) nationwide infrastructure to purchase fresh produce and improve the nutritional content of school meals; (3) USDA and other officials believe that the best practices identified could be replicated by some states and school food authorities to help improve the management and operation of the school meal programs nationwide; (4) however, some impediments would first have to be overcome before these best practices could be adopted; (5) the successful implementation of a computerized system would first require the establishment of an effective commodity-ordering and -processing network that links commercial brokers and processors, SFAs, and the state's commodity-distributing agency; (6) similarly, if other states and SFAs wanted to purchase a wider variety of higher-quality fresh fruits and vegetables at competitive prices by using DOD's commodity-purchasing infrastructure under a USDA pilot project, their participation might be limited by the $20-million cap on federal commodity funds available for this USDA project; (7) moreover, not all best practices may be suitable for all states and SFAs because of such factors as the size and location of the state school food authority; (8) USDA's recent training and technical assistance efforts for the school meal programs have largely focused on providing information about the new dietary guidelines to school food service personnel; (9) because USDA's training and technical assistance resources are limited, USDA has had few resources available for training and assisting states in managing and operating the school meal programs more efficiently and economically; and (10) past efforts to improve the management and operation of school meal programs, such as the best practices awards program that operated during fiscal years 1992 through 1994, have either been eliminated or reduced because of other competing priorities for resources.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While FCS was not opposed to the concept presented in the recommendation, it had reservations about the feasibility of developing a program of this type at this time due to agency resource limitations. FCS said that substantial staff resources would be needed to systematically identify and validate excellent management and operation practices of states and school fund authorities that may be replicated, and to disseminate the information nationwide. FCS will continue to share information and provide technical assistance to program operators through the National Food Service Management Institute, Food Nutrition Information Center of the National Agricultural Library, and the management evaluation process. However, FCS cannot commit to additional activity beyond this level without additional administrative funding. As FCS becomes aware of innovative practices that may benefit state and local operations, it will transfer or promote them to the extent the resources are available.

    Recommendation: To improve the management and operation of the school meal programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, Food and Consumer Service, to identify and encourage the adoption of best practices and to provide the necessary training and technical assistance to successfully transfer these practices to other states and SFAs, where appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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