Food agencies queue up online

The Agriculture Department took a lesson from online retailers to overhaul its ordering process for state meal, emergency food assistance and food bank programs.

State agencies can use Agriculture's electronic commodity ordering system to shop online for food for local school lunch and other nutrition programs, just as consumers buy clothing and electronics over the Internet. The system lets state agencies order, for example, shipments of green beans, potatoes and cereal in a virtual shopping cart.

'Ordering through ECOS has a look and feel similar to commercial ordering Web sites,' said Dave Tuckwiller, special assistant to the director for USDA's Food Distribution Division.

States can view the availability of food, check the status of their orders and track shipments online. The system shortens ordering turnaround times and increases the number of government users who can access the USDA ordering application.

The system went live nationwide in March and is now used by 75 agencies in all 50 states and four territories.

'The Web-based system doesn't look anything like what was used before. It's a vast improvement,' Tuckwiller said. The old electronic data interchange system was housed on individual computers at each state agency that orders commodities.

Orders automatically forwarded

Now state purchasing agents log on to https://www.usdaservices.eds-gov.com and order with a point and a click. Each order is automatically copied to the state distribution agency. The state agency buys from the federal government, which sends the product to the state distributor or reserves the items from the state inventory if available. The state then trucks the orders to the local school or food program.

EDS Corp. and ATG of Cambridge, Mass., jointly developed the system using ATG's Dynamo Suite commerce software.

USDA pulled the plug last month on its EDI system, which had run concurrently with ECOS as a backup.

ECOS streamlines the way USDA gathers information for orders, such as coding more food items. That, in turn, can help states manage their inventories and deliveries more efficiently, Tuckwiller said.

But many state distribution agencies depend on paper systems to coordinate deliveries to local school districts and food programs, he said. 'We do anticipate the ECOS system saving time in the long run,' as state agencies become more accustomed to using it, he said.

As the system evolves, USDA will be able to offer personalized content based on agencies' recipients, such as children or senior citizens. Agencies such as individual school districts will be able to order their food supplies directly through the Web site, ATG spokesman John Dragoon said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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