Peas and Queues

USDA's Les Johnson says the online school-lunch ordering system will enhance homeland security in case anyone needs to communicate a problem about the food supply quickly.

(GCN Photo by Olivier Douliery)

USDA helps schools order lunch online

When grocery shoppers began going online several years ago, the Agriculture Department's Les Johnson decided public-school lunch managers needed the same convenience and savings.

Now a 30-year-old paper ordering process for agricultural commodities in school lunches is giving way to the browser-based Electronic Commodity Ordering System.

Sept. 11 accelerated the need to give schools more control over their orders, said Johnson, director of food distribution for Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. 'We've focused on homeland security,' he said. 'This allows us to make direct linkages with schools.'

Schools in California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Virginia have been testing ECOS in a yearlong pilot, and Johnson intends to make it available to all states' school systems by December.

A new diet

ECOS uses the ATG Enterprise Commerce Suite from Art Technology Group Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., plus an IBM DB2 database server and Microsoft Internet Information Server. Orders are protected by browsers' Secure Sockets Layer encryption.

Electronic Data Systems Corp. assisted with system development and maintains the servers. 'It really is a technology overhaul' for the Food and Nutrition Service, Johnson said.

Orders flow over USDA's WAN from the school districts to the states to Johnson's headquarters. No state can view another's orders.

The links in the chain of communication among districts, states and USDA will add safety in case of a food emergency or contamination, Johnson said. 'So we think ECOS has got some strong homeland security aspects. It also saves state agencies thousands and thousands of hours across the country.'

Cindy Brooks, food service director for the Seymour, Conn., school district, has been a pilot ECOS user. She said it saves her time and trouble compared with the old fax ordering process.
'If I'm at a conference in California, I can access my order form,' Brooks said.

One problem she and fellow testers found during the pilot planning was that not every school district had a PC for the food service director to use.

'Here in Connecticut, we have small towns where there's just one school run by a manager who does not have computer skills or access to a computer,' she said.

If such users could familiarize themselves with computers and use one at a local library or business, they could take care of ordering a year's worth of school lunch commodities in just a few hours, she said.

Knows the menu

Brooks now makes out her monthly order for the state's commodity office, which transmits it directly to Johnson's office. She orders for 3,000 students at five Connecticut schools, and she no longer has to wait for USDA to tell the state to tell her what she can order. The online forms show her what foods are available.

Connecticut students, for example, do not eat salmon nuggets as Alaska students do, she said. Canned fruits and vegetables and processed foods are among the provisions Brooks can buy. 'In
Connecticut, we don't do fresh fruits and vegetables,' she said.

Because the headquarters system can update individual state accounts in real time, state officials see exactly how much of their school lunch budgets they've spent and how much they have left.

'I have more control over my entitlement dollars now,' Brooks said. 'In the past, we would order commodities and not know where we stood.'

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