Orders Please! Headache Free Commodity Allocation

  • School Food Operations
  • January 14, 2016
  • Comments

It’s January. You’ve just returned to school, refreshed by your two weeks off of holiday fun.  You look at your to-do list and “commodity planning” hasn’t been crossed off yet.  Ugh. You did intend to get your cycles reviewed before break but it didn’t happen. Or worse – you don’t have any menu cycles.  You like to “mix it up” and cycles sound like drudgery.  Menu planning and forecasting the commodity ingredients that you’ll use in the upcoming school year often begins 17-18 months before you serve the first meal.  Depending on how your state handles commodities you may be making decisions as early as December or as late as March or April for a school year that’s still months away. Let’s face it – it can be tough to wrap your head around.

For those of us who’ve worked in restaurant kitchens, it feels like a stone age away.  It doesn’t feel immediate or seasonal or fresh – you’re not going to the farmers’ market and seeing, smelling, touching and tasting the ingredients while planning a menu in your mind as you shop. Commodity planning is making spreadsheets, filling out your state’s commodity survey and your buying co-op’s food show, dealing with your brokers sending you the SEPDS worksheets (Summary End Product Data Schedules) for JTM, Tyson, or Land O’Lakes. Are you diverting? Are you using mostly minimally processed USDA foods?  Do you make all your tomato-based sauces with USDA commodity products?  Do you count on using DOD for many key vegetables and fruits for your salad bar or certain menu items?  

You begin to despair, leave that to-do where it is, and move on to other things.

It’s February. You get an email from the state saying your commodity order is due March 1st ‒ panic ensues.  What happens?  For many, it’s often the same thing you did last year.  You promise yourself this time you’ll figure out a good way to use the items.  “It’s not all my food,” you rationalize. “It only makes up 20% of my food cost…I’ll use it,” you hope. “Someone told me that product was amazing, I bet the kids will love it,” you reason.  And then you remember that you left a big balance at the processor last year.  The kids didn’t love that one.  

Don’t be that guy or gal.  If you’re reading this blog now and you don’t have a short list for how you’re using your commodity allocation, it’s not too late.  To do any of this forecasting stuff well ‒ accurately, thoughtfully - you need a few basic things. A menu is most important.  Beyond that you need a cycle and you need your average daily participation (ADP), split up by elementary, middle, and high school so you can align forecasting menu items offered to certain age groups.

The Benefits of Menu Cycles

  Cycle menus are the key to becoming less overwhelmed.  They provide structure.  They enable us to:

  • Set some goals for our menus – like perhaps you're moving more items to scratch production!!
  • Make informed choices about how we’ll use our commodity dollars
  • Enables us to plan from the outset to use 100% of our commodity allocation
  • Make it easier to be successful in a highly regulated environment
  • Enables more accurate forecasting, which in turn supports our procurement relationships – commodity or otherwise
  • Allow for long term planning with local growers
  • Reinforces training and efficiency of your production teams
  • Allow for innovation with less risk – (because you’ve done your homework)

Creating Your Menu Cycle

If you’ve never created a cycle before, or feel you’ve always been “half-in” in your commitment to it, pull your last two months of menus and your meal counts (by the day if you can pull that). Make a spreadsheet with 30 boxes – six rows and five columns.  Type in by day what you served for the last six weeks.  Don’t worry if you repeated a week or menu item – just type it up.  There you go - you just took the first step to committing to a menu cycle.  What does that six weeks look like to you?  How did the days do meal count wise?  Use your meal count reports by day if you have them.  If something looks off or a favorite item is missing – fix it.  Look again. Then start looking at the patterns for your most expensive foods – those proteins: beef, chicken, cheese, turkey, pork.  Look at frequency. How many times in your calendar will that day in the cycle occur? Look at the Fridays and Mondays.  Can you make what is scheduled on Mondays easily or will it be a squeeze?  Can you make something on Friday and hold it for service on Mondays?

Using Your Menu Cycle to Forecast

Creating six weeks of cycle (there’s a sample workbook here) is like playing a little board game.  It sounds so simple but when you start thinking commitment – that’s when it gets tough.  Take a look at our Menu Forecasting Tool, which you can find in the Procurement section of The Lunch Box.  And remember, for the purposes of commodity allocation, unless you are only allocating commodities for pass-through ready-to-heat items, think generally about the ingredients instead of specifically about what the recipe is. Focusing on the details will really slow you down, and if you tend to procrastinate, it can derail your process before you really get started. Don’t fret over whether that ground beef is going to be a taco or a burrito – you can figure that out after you’ve done your math. If you need a recipe to figure out the yield, go to our Recipe section for help. Or go to USDA Food Buyers Guide, the bible for product yield. Start thinking ground beef, shredded cheese, diced chicken, 8 cut chicken, fajita chicken, turkey roasts, deli turkey or turkey ham, pork roasts ‒ these bulk ingredients can be forecasted for volume pretty easily if you can pattern a six-week cycle thinking about the main ingredient instead of the details of the menu item. Whether its Cajun or Mexican, if you know you need 2 ounces of diced chicken per serving you can forecast for your commodities and get pretty close. Often you won’t have enough money to get everything you need – but that should be your goal – 100% allocation.   

Once you’ve got that pattern you can develop some pretty accurate ball parks for the volume, as long as you have meal counts and ADP, and know how many times that item is going to hit in your calendar. We recommend keeping that commodity allocation as simple as possible. It’s really not that hard to use 100% of your allocation if you spread it throughout your cycles.  You can focus on proteins or make it a mix but it needs to be intentional. If you know turkey often gets cut or doesn’t show up until February, don’t plan such a large percentage for it.  If the state cancels regularly on certain items, plan with other products. Also remember to look at current market pricing.  Sometimes a USDA commodity average price per pound isn’t as good a value to your overall food budget as buying it commercially.  We discuss all these issues in detail in the USDA Foods section of The Lunch Box.  

So sketch out your cycles and use The Lunch Box Tools and Resources to help you project the volume. Once you have your commodity allocations done, you can continue to refine your cycles by identifying the details of the items and recipes. And work through the meal pattern contributions of your plan using the USDA’s Recipe Analysis Worksheet (RAW). Take the next step in your forecasting by setting up Requests for Proposals for your commercial purchases, as well as any volume that your purchasing cooperative might be looking to you for.  The time you invest in menu planning will pay off over and over.  No more headaches!  100% use of your USDA Commodities!!

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