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Taste Test: Behind the Scenes with USDA Foods

Posted by Lindsay Williams, Food Distribution Division, USDA Food and Nutrition Service in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Chris Facha samples the new pepper/onion blend
Chris Facha, USDA Food Distribution Program Coordinator at the Oregon Department of Education and American Commodity Distribution Association (ACDA) President Elect, samples the new pepper/onion blend served during the USDA/State Agency Meeting’s “USDA Foods: Behind the Scenes” session.

The USDA Foods Available List is a lot like any other menu, with dozens of healthy options for state agencies to order and distribute through USDA’s nutrition assistance programs.  And every year, foods are added or removed from the list based on customer demand and market conditions. Some offerings are modified to improve nutrition content or make the product and its packaging easier to work with in the kitchen or more acceptable to kids.

The USDA Foods program is a collaboration between the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the agency that procures the food, and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency that distributes the food. This school year, the USDA Foods team’s goal for training and conferences is to provide more opportunities to taste new and reformulated products. That way, state agencies can confidently order them and school districts can incorporate them into their menus.

The USDA Test Kitchen, in the iconic South Building in Washington, D.C., is the hub for USDA Foods product evaluation by AMS and FNS staff. Current and prospective vendors provide samples to evaluate based on taste, texture, appearance and other factors. We then decide which products are good candidates for the Foods Available List and which may need a little more tweaking to meet recipients’ needs.

At this fall’s annual meeting for USDA and state agency staff working on school meal programs, attendees had the opportunity to go “behind the scenes with USDA Foods.” This pre-conference session included background information on the contracting process, development of the Foods Available List, timelines for introducing new or improved products and how to best provide feedback. Next, the group enjoyed a hands-on tasting experience in the USDA Test Kitchen! Here, attendees sampled and evaluated seven new or recently reformulated USDA Foods products, including whole grain-rich Alaska Pollock fish sticks, high protein yogurt and pulled pork. We were grateful for the positive comments and suggestions from this interactive session.

In December, USDA took the show on the road to the School Food Focus National Gathering in Braselton, Ga. Participants tasted the recently reformulated dried fruit mix, which contains equal portions of diced dried apples, dried cherries, dried cranberries and raisins. The mix can be served plain and is also a great topping for oatmeal or yogurt. The next generation – and our actual customers – also got involved in the action as Gwinnett County Public Schools culinary students conducted a cooking demonstration using the USDA Foods unseasoned chicken strip! They prepared a delicious chicken pesto panini with fresh spinach and mozzarella cheese.

The taste testing trend continues: the School Nutrition Association (SNASchool Nutrition Industry Conference in Orlando, Fla., will feature a USDA Foods Taste Test as a bonus session on Saturday, January 21. Participants will learn about the behind-the-scenes process for USDA Foods product development and taste recipes developed by Chef Paula Kendrick, who will be incorporating USDA Foods into fun, innovative dishes such as cinnamon nachos with pear topping, pasta with broccoli and mushrooms, and spiced and roasted chickpeas! The Orange County Public Schools food truck will also be making a special appearance.

USDA will continue to seek opportunities to share the tasting experience with program stakeholders around the country. We always appreciate feedback on current USDA Foods products and your ideas for new ones! Contact us at

Gwinnett County Public Schools culinary students preparing chicken pesto panini
Gwinnett County Public Schools culinary students prepare chicken pesto panini with fresh spinach and mozzarella cheese.
Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Mariko Terasaki
Aug 29, 2018

Does USDA Foods have any plans to include more non-meat based protein options and dairy milk alternatives (with equivalent nutritional value as dairy milk) any time soon? Many schools that are interested in providing healthier (for students and for the planet) options have cited their inability to do so based on cost prohibitiveness. Could USDA support these schools by creating commodity items that are more affordable for public schools?

Ben Weaver
Sep 10, 2018

@Mariko Terasaki - We appreciate your feedback on potential new USDA Foods. USDA currently offers a variety of non-meat protein options, including legumes, cheese, nut and seed products, yogurt, and egg products. USDA is continuously working to improve the nutrition profile of USDA Foods and increase the variety of its offerings, in line with the National School Lunch Program meal pattern requirements, and feedback from states and school districts. USDA considers a number of criteria when determining whether a specific food is feasible to offer through USDA Foods, outlined in a one-pager on our website. Schools are able to order a variety of items from the USDA Foods list at a savings, and often use their cash resources to purchase commercial items that may be of interest to their particular student population.

Jonas Williams
Jan 27, 2021

Overall i think the USDA going around to different cities and states to interact with different organizations to have fun and see the importance of food is wonderful.

Steve Olson
May 19, 2022

I remember starting this program many years ago. Great work USDA!!!