March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.
Fish and fowl, sowing and reaping, nutrition and agriculture… certain words and concepts naturally go hand in hand, and March is a month to celebrate both the foundation and purpose of the American food system. With March designated as National Nutrition Month and March 15 as National Agriculture Day, the time is ripe to reflect on healthy eating goals and to express gratitude for the farmers, fishers, and ranchers who provide the foods to fuel our nation.
USDA’s Food Distribution Programs work at the intersection of nutrition and agriculture. Each year, USDA purchases more than 2 billion pounds of food worth nearly $2 billion from American farmers and distributes the food to schools, food banks, Indian Tribal Organizations, disaster feeding organizations, and other charitable institutions and feeding organizations. The programs benefit both ends of the food chain by supporting local agriculture and the economy while also providing a nutrition safety net for vulnerable Americans.
All USDA Foods are local to someone! Our State of Origin reports and maps showcase where USDA Foods products are processed each year, allowing a school or food bank interested in ordering local foods to see which USDA Foods tend to come from its state or a neighboring state. Let’s use fish as an example. In Fiscal Year 2015, all salmon came from Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, and all catfish came from Mississippi and Alabama. And what was the sole state of origin for Alaska Pollock? You guessed it: Alaska!
Just as last year’s USDA Foods fish was predictably sourced along regional lines, the data reveals you most likely received your cheddar cheese from Wisconsin, your grits from Kansas, and your bulk turkey – both boneless skinless turkey thighs and whole birds – from Minnesota. You received all your frozen strawberries from California and all your wild frozen blueberries from Maine. Local produce is also available through the Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, as vendors have the option to include state of origin labeling in the ordering catalog.
USDA-purchased foods have been finding their way to children’s lunch trays for more than 70 years. Since the signing of the National School Lunch Act in June 1946, USDA Foods have been available to schools nationwide. USDA has made great strides in this program over the years by increasing the variety and nutritional quality of the offerings to better meet the needs of schools districts across the country. Our more than 200 offerings span the food groups and many have been reformulated in recent years to reduce sodium, sugar, and fat.
Compare a half cup of USDA Foods frozen strawberries and peaches to their commercial counterparts, and you’ll find that the difference is stark: Our lower sugar formulation sliced strawberries and sliced peaches have about half the grams of sugar, and our unsweetened whole strawberries have a mere one-fifth as much sugar as commercial formulations! On the sodium front, USDA Foods specification improvements in recent years have resulted in sodium reductions of up to 50 percent in mozzarella cheese, up to 42 percent in ham, and up to 23 percent in American cheese.
National Nutrition Month is a fitting time to recognize all of these advancements in USDA Foods, while also celebrating National Agriculture Day and the farmers who make these programs possible!