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What to Consider When Choosing a Meal Provider

NOW is the time to conduct the search for that ideal meal vendor to partner with for 2017-18 school year. If you participate in the National School Lunch Program, you must follow all USDA and state regulations on procuring a food vendor. This is an important decision to make, and should be given full attention and consideration. Below are some tips and things to consider when going through this process, put together by School Food and Wellness procurement team!

#1 Vended Meals or Food Service Management Company?

"We know that we do not want to cook the food ourselves, and have determined that we should hire an experienced company to provide healthy, compliant meals…now what?". There are two different types of contracts a school can have in when working with a food provider. A “Vended Meal” contract usually specifies that pre-packed or bulk-delivered meals will be dropped off to the school on a daily basis. The school staff receives the meals and serves the food to students. A “Food Service Management Company”, or FSMC contract, is a typical full-service agreement in which the food provider either brings prepared food or cooks on site, and their staff are on-site to serve the meals to students.

Vended Meals

Ideal for:

  • Smaller schools (less than 400-500 students)

  • No kitchen on site

  • School wants control over the program management and service

  • Pros:

  • Lower price per meal

  • Ability to regulate staff

  • Cons:

  • Must hire additional staff to prepare and serve meals or assign current staff to meal-time duties

  • Must train staff on how to properly portion and serve meals

  • Must complete all daily, required paperwork

Food Service Management Company

Ideal for:

  • Larger schools with multiple meal periods (500+ students)

  • Cooking kitchen on site (but not required)

  • Limited Operations staff

  • Pros:

  • Staff are provided by the Vendor to assist with meal prep and serving

  • Vendor completes all daily, required paperwork

  • Additional staff to help serve potential salad bars or other unique meal platforms

  • Cons:

  • Higher price per meal

  • less flexibility in overseeing meal service and paperwork

#2 Pre-packaged meals or bulk, “family style” meals?

"We have identified our Vendor (hooray!) and now need to decide if we want to serve pre-packaged meals (individual) or serve meals from bulk containers onto a tray or plate (family-style). Which is the best way?". Sometimes the answer is simple, depending on the facilities. If the school is limited to serving meals in the classroom only, it is probably best to go with pre-packaged, individually wrapped meals. If your school is fortunate enough to have the option of using a traditional cafeteria, you will need to decide between pre-packaged or bulk/family-style meals. Let’s discuss both options.



  • Service Speed – students can “grab and go”

  • Preparation – minimal set-up is required, meals are placed on a table and students can pick up their trays with all required components


  • Food Quality – meals delivered in pre-packaged containers will not maintain their best quality or “taste factor”

  • Presentation – pre-packaged meals often assume the look of a “TV dinner” and come wrapped in plastic. It may also be more difficult for students to determine what the meal options are for the day

Bulk, Family-Style


  • Food Quality – meals delivered in bulk will have better consistency and overall quality

  • Presentation – by “scooping” food onto a plate, meals will be served as they would at the dinner table, allowing students to clearly see their options displayed on the serving line

  • Variety – additional veggie and fruit options may be placed on the serving line, allowing students more choices


  • Preparation – additional time will be needed set-up all meal components, plates, utensils; the breakdown of the empty pans and serving utensils will also require extra time

  • Staff – additional staff will be necessary to scoop and serve all components on the line

  • Compliance – staff must serve the correct portion sizes – this poses a risk of not meeting minimum requirement if the staff is not diligent

Need additional help deciding which route is best for your school? Give us a call or email today and we can help walk you through the procurement process. We have helped over 50 schools start a great vendor relationship in SY17, and would love to help you connect with healthy meals for your scholars!

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