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Farm To School

Developing Product Specifications

Last Modified: 03/25/2014

The key to effective purchasing of local food items requires the school food authorities (SFA) to take some important steps before they actually begin the procurement process. Before purchasing for the Child Nutrition Programs, the SFA must evaluate their current food service operations and needs; this is also known as forecasting.

In conducting a self-assessment the SFA should consider food service operations that relate to their:

  • Operational practices – self-operating or contracted with a Food Service Management Company;

  • Kitchen facilities – central kitchen, individual kitchen sites, or combination;

  • Storage capacity;

  • Processing abilities;

  • Staff resources;

  • Food safety practices;

  • Prior year’s menus; and

  • Current food inventory.

SFAs should also evaluate their current food service needs, such as:

  • Necessary food volume;

  • Student preferences;

  • Menu requirements; and

  • Required transportation and delivery needs.

After the SFA has evaluated its food service operation and needs, the next step is to develop product specifications. SFAs should think carefully about developing specifications that reflect the specific characteristics of the products they seek. The following examples are indicators that may be used within a product’s specification:

  • Degree of ripeness or maturity;

  • Condition upon receipt of product;

  • Age of product;

  • Weight range;

  • Preservation or processing method;

  • US Standard for Grade; and

  • Temperature during delivery and upon receipt.

There are important elements to consider when drafting specification for local food items. Elements such as: size, quantity, quality, cleanliness, packaging, food safety and delivery. Consult USDA resources such as the Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs and Fruits and Vegetables Galore to aid in the development of product specifications. Although not all-encompassing, the table below provides examples to some specification elements that are important factors to discuss with local producers to ensure that expectations and requirements are clear: 

 Specification  Elements Examples SizeIndicate the size an apple must be to qualify as part of a reimbursable meal, so that expectations are set up front. QuantityFarmers and SFAs sometimes speak different languages—schools may not be used to ordering apples in “bushels” from their national distributor; be aware of language barriers. QualityIndicate that lettuce must be a healthy green color with no brown leaves. CleanlinessIndicate that lettuce should be clean with no visible signs of dirt or insects. PackagingA local farmer may sell product in 25 pound boxes, but the SFA may need lighter/smaller packaging in order for staff to carry. Food SafetyInclude a checklist of questions for the farmer to complete regarding their agricultural practices (consult our Food Safety webpage for more information DeliveryEstablish a delivery day and time for products.