Research Original Research| Volume 114, ISSUE 9, P1349-1358, September 2014

Is Scratch-Cooking a Cost-Effective Way to Prepare Healthy School Meals with US Department of Agriculture Foods?



      Despite the resurgence of interest in scratch-cooking as a way to increase the quality and appeal of school meals, many school districts are concerned about the cost implications of switching to scratch-cooking. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foods are the single largest source of ingredients for school meals, and about half of USDA Foods are diverted for processing before being sent to the school district.


      We aimed to determine whether school lunch entrées made in a district from basic or raw USDA Foods ingredients can be healthier and less expensive to prepare than those sent to external processors.


      This cross-sectional study examined the relationship between the extent of scratch-cooking and the nutritional content and cost to prepare entrées. Information was gathered by interview with school foodservice personnel and from school foodservice records from a convenience sample of 10 school districts in California that employed varying degrees of scratch-cooking and is diverse in terms of geographic location and the sociodemographics of the student body. The sample included all elementary school lunch entrées that contain USDA Foods offered during October 2010 for a total sample of 146 entrées.

      Statistical analyses

      Ordinary least squares regressions were used to test for statistically significant differences in cost and nutrient content of entrées according to the level of scratch-cooking.


      There was no significant relationship between total costs and level of scratch-cooking. Entrées with the highest scratch-cooking scores had significantly lower food costs, higher labor costs, and not significantly different total costs compared with entrées with no scratch-cooking. Nutrient content was not consistently associated with scratch-cooking, but scratch-cooked entrées did include a larger variety of non–fast-food-type entrées.


      The findings suggest that scratch-cooking can be a cost-effective way to expand the variety of healthy school lunches prepared with USDA Foods.


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      G. Woodward-Lopez is associate director, Atkins Center for Weight and Health, University of California, Berkeley.


      J. Kao is a research specialist, Atkins Center for Weight and Health, University of California, Berkeley.


      P. Crawford is director, Atkins Center for Weight and Health, University of California, Berkeley.


      K. Kiesel is an assistant professor, Department of Economics, California State University, Sacramento.


      M. Lewis Miller is manager, community programs, Food Gatherers, Ann Arbor, MI; at the time of the study, she was a nutrition policy advocate, California Food Policy Advocates, Oakland.


      M. Boyle is a senior associate, Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA; at the time of the study, she was a senior associate, The Sarah Samuels Center for Public Health Research and Evaluation, Oakland, CA.


      S. Drago-Ferguson is an associate, The Sarah Samuels Center for Public Health Research and Evaluation, Oakland, CA.


      E. Braff-Guajardo is a program officer, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, MI; at the time of the study, she was a nutrition policy advocate, California Food Policy Advocates, Oakland.