School food purchasers soon will be able to order canned peaches, peas, and other nutritional items for school meals online, thanks to a new automated system from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Electronic Commodity Ordering System (ECOS) is an online tool that lets local districts communicate their school lunch needs in real time to states prior to placement of commodity orders with USDA, thus lessening a bureaucratic burden that has contributed to the slow-moving distribution of school commodity food for years.

Though a number of states have developed similar tools for food ordering independent of the federal government, this marks the first time USDA has offered such a service to states and schools directly. What’s more, it’s free of charge.

According to Les Johnson, director of USDA’s food distribution unit, USDA-supplied commodities make up 15 to 20 percent of the food devoured, tossed, and trashed by students in school cafeterias each year. What amounts to approximately $700 million worth of commodity orders from schools results in a complex logistical system of ordering, shipping, and distribution of products across the country. ECOS, Johnson said, will help streamline that process.

“The system allows access to everything the federal government offers schools as a commodity,” he said. “It will give [schools] the ability to order what it is that they need.”

Typically, the commodity ordering process begins with USDA allocating maximum amounts of any given order—from chocolate pudding to chicken nuggets—to individual states. These choices then are filtered down to individual schools and districts. Once schools decide on an order, they resubmit their request to the state, where results are compiled and returned to USDA. The agency then constructs a bid package and allows companies to submit competitive bids. After an agreement is reached, the food is delivered by truck either to a state warehouse for storage or, in the case of larger institutions, directly to schools for consumption, Johnson said.

Before ECOS, states found communication with individual schools difficult, Johnson said. Under a previous system, known as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), states had the ability to communicate by modem and via eMail with USDA officials. But the program did not include a channel for local districts to participate in the communications, Johnson said.

Older systems generally were paper-based, which slowed the ordering process. But, according to Johnson, the new online component integrates technology to improve upon those methods.

First, ECOS is expected to provide for better communications between state agencies and local school districts. Johnson said improved communication channels will help USDA pinpoint the exact commodity needs of individual schools.

Before, “states had to estimate what schools needed,” Johnson said. “This will allow states to work with real data from the schools.”

That means school officials can log onto the databases and enter exactly how much of a commodity they require. State facilities then can review this information before placing commodity orders at the federal level. According to Johnson, this capability will help both states and USDA decide how to spread commodity allocations more effectively.

Another benefit to real-time access: Food and nutrition specialists can see instantly what commodities are available and how much of their federal allocations have been used.

According to Johnson, USDA gives states a commodity allowance based on the number of students served in each state. Once they have reached their limit under the allowance, they must purchase commodities from the general market.

“The system will allow [states] to keep track of how many commodity orders they have left,” Johnson said.

ECOS also promises to provide for advanced warnings in the event of spoiled or contaminated foods, an apprehension that had increased in light of recent homeland security concerns.

The system “allows for a direct communication with the schools,” Johnson said. “Whenever you are dealing with food, you have occasions where something goes wrong.” State and school food nutrition specialists who have used the program on a pilot basis say ECOS has potential.

“Having it online makes things so much easier. It’s going to save a lot of time,” said Amy Lins, director of food services for the Oakland Unified School District.

Lins, who helped develop the program, said she was most impressed by the amount of time ECOS saved her during the ordering process.

“As a director, I can tell you it really helps to be able to consult my computer instead of having to look up a file,” she said. “Anything that we don’t have to file or send is a always helpful.”

Steve Thomas, a food distribution administrator for Virginia, echoed Johnson’s sentiments. He agreed that ECOS will help schools and states order the exact amounts of commodities needed.

Virginia, he said, was operating under a very inexact system. Commodity orders were made based on broad estimates. When excess food arrived, it would be shipped to other schools throughout the state or stored in a warehouse in the event of a shortage. “Right now, we really don’t have a feel for the exact volume of our orders,” he said. “This new system will really help us pinpoint what it is [school systems] want.”

Despite the program’s potential for improved ordering efficiency, Thomas said he still expects schools to have to place food orders some six to nine months in advance.

“One of the hurdles you still have to get over is the logistical movement within the state,” he said. “Everything is done six to nine months ahead of time.”

Neither Johnson nor Lins denies that logistics continues to be a problem. But, they said, the new system will make improvements.

ECOS “probably won’t address all the logistics concerns directly,” Lins said. “But in the long run, it will speed up the ordering process.”

Johnson also acknowledged that several states will continue to experience logistical difficulties in the shipping and storing of food. But, he said, the ability to use exact data should help eliminate the need for the additional transportation, storage, and redistribution of excess commodities throughout different states.

“We are continually involved in a balancing act,” he said.

Johnson said he expects the system will become a popular option for schools come January when it is offered freely to all states, although some states will stay with systems already in place.

Currently, ECOS is being piloted in four states: Virginia, Connecticut, California, and Illinois. The remaining 46 states will have the option to implement the service by January, Johnson said.

Links:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
http://www.usda.gov

California Department of Education
http://www.cde.ca.gov

Oakland Unified School District
http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us

State of Virginia
http://www.myvirginia.org

Virginia State Department of Education
http://www.pen.k12.va.us