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Bid Specifications in Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs

What is a bid specification?
According to The Comprehensive Food Service Purchasing and Specification Manual, a bid specification (bid spec) is “a ready reference to the standards by which you measure the foods you specify for purchase and inspect upon delivery.”

Bid specifications in Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Programs are not standardized at the local, state or regional level. Personnel with little or no foodservice or nutrition training working in these Programs may not be familiar with the bid specification process, which gives a detailed description of the product ordered and provides the receiving clerk with information on acceptable food products. These food specifications describe the grade of the food (i.e., Grade A eggs), count per container, forms (such as cut, whole, sliced, whether the product is canned, fresh, dehydrated, frozen), weight ranges, trim ranges, ripeness, brand, fat content, sweetness, additives, and drained weight.

Meats and meat products are identified by cut, fat content, and weight. Bid specs should require that they be free of odor or signs of deterioration. Dairy products should specify the specific unit size (½ pint versus pint of milk), fat content (2% versus whole milk), receiving temperature and within a specified expiration date deadline. Bid specs for fresh fruit and vegetables should include the grade, size, ripeness, as well as count.

It is important to order canned items in a unit size appropriate for the menu (#10 can vs #30 can) to avoid waste if more is ordered than needed. Form is also important. Are products received in the form ordered (stewed versus whole or diced)? It is important to determine if the product received is appropriate for the desired use. An example is ordering Grade A tomatoes for spaghetti sauce, when Grade B tomato would suffice.

Acceptable substitute products should be written into the bid spec. A comparable item can be sent instead of a lesser quality food when an ordered item is unavailable from the purveyor.

How do I recognize a good bid spec?
Good bid specs include a short, clearly written description of the desired product, the quality of the product, USDA or industry standards, pack size, can size or weight, and yield per unit. Some examples are included at the end of this document. Because their use is so important, a list of key references is also included.

Do other federal Nutrition Assistance Programs use bid specs?
The School Nutrition Program, one of the largest Nutrition Assistance Program, is highly regulated by the USDA. Bid spec use is mandated by federal regulations. They use only bid specs that will be checked for compliance at point of receipt. Therefore, informed staff is crucial for successful use of bid specs. A well developed bid spec will be useless if the receiving clerk is not informed on what are acceptable products. A professional development course entitled, “Prime Purchasing Practices” was developed in 2005 in response to a questionnaire sent to over 100 School Nutrition Association Members regarding their purchasing practices.The course teaches best purchasing practices to school nutrition managers.

Federal regulations for OAA Nutrition Programs are fewer. The OAA delegates the authority to operate OAA Nutrition Programs to the States.

What is the extent of use of bid specifications in OAA Nutrition Programs?
Because there was little information available on bid spec use in OAA Nutrition Programs, the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Aging developed a 19-question online survey. It was emailed to the Listservs members of 2 national Aging Network organizations:

  • 614: Meals on Wheels Association of America, Inc. (MOWAA)
  • 477: National Association of Nutrition & Aging Services Provider (NANASP).

Sysco, one of the largest food vendors in the US, was contacted to gain insight on bid specifications. They were in the planning stages of writing a “Best Purchasing Practices” manual for their clients in OAA Nutrition Programs regarding the value of using bid specifications.

What were the Survey results?
The low response rate of 5% (50/1091) suggests a low use of bid specifications in OAA Nutrition Programs. There is a need for standardized bid specs and implementation at local and AAA levels to improve product expectations, cost controls and food quality.

What are the characteristics of OAA Nutrition Programs that use bid specs vs. those that do not?
Of the bid spec users the majority (54%) were AAA providers and 46% of the respondents were local providers. Additionally, 78% of the bid spec users were from urban areas. Of the non bid spec users the majority (69%) were local providers and 31% were AAA providers with 50% of the respondents from rural areas.  Similarities occurred between the respondent’s number of years with the program; the majority had been with the program 11+ years; 53% of bid spec users and 46% of the non bid spec users.

When asked about the number of congregate meals served in FY 2004:

  • 33% of the bid spec users served between 100,000 - 500,000 congregate meals
  • 3% of the bid spec users served 1 million or greater congregate meals
  • 33% on non bid spec users served between 50,000 -100,000 congregate meals
  • None of the non bid spec users served 1 million congregate meals

Home delivered meals served in FY 2004:

  • 52% of bid spec users served 100,000 – 500,000 meals
  • 11% of bid spec users served 50,000 – 100,000 meals
  • 31% of non bid spec users served between 100,000 -500,000 meals
  • 39% of non bid spec users served between 50,000 -100,000 meals

The majority of the non bid spec users (86%) prepared meals on site, whereas the majority of the bid spec users (56%) purchased catered meals.

In OAA Nutrition Programs using bid specifications, who develops and reviews them and how frequently are they reviewed and revised?

  • 56% Developed by their organization
  • 30% Did not respond to question
  • 44% Reviewed by Program Director
  • 24% Reviewed by Food Buyer
  •   2% Not reviewed
  •   2% Don’t know how they were reviewed

Frequency of review and revision:

  •   4% Once a month
  • 12% Twice a year
  • 50% Once a year
  •   2% Not reviewed
  •   4% Don’t know

In Programs not using bid specifications, what controls are used for food purchasing and receiving?
Programs not using bid specs weighed, measured and counted (WMC) items as a way of controlling the procurement process where 66% said they WMC Every Delivery,17% WMC >2 / week and 17% WMC >1 / month. Additionally, if food products were received without ingredient labels 42% had the purveyor bring the labels, 33% said they accepted product without labels and 25% returned the product.

How do bid specs improve meal quality and save money in OAA Nutrition Programs?
By controlling and improving food quality, Nutrition Programs can:

  • Attract more congregate and home-delivered meal clients
  • Better use of funds
  • Better able to check that products received are products ordered, including quality and quantity
  • Better control in receiving process

How did one Area Agency on Aging take control of their procurement process?
The Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging (WRAAA) in Cleveland, Ohio, was not pleased with the quality of meals served. Caterers were invited to bid on the program; as a result of the fierce competition the program has one of the lowest per meal prices in the state of Ohio.  However, the low per meal price negatively impacted food quality.  WRAAA conducted focus groups in their 5 county areas; they met with clients, discussed their meal likes/dislikes and asked what they could do to improve the meals. The participants wanted less processed meat and more real meat, reduced sodium, and reduced breading on the meat and fish products.  In summary participants wanted a better quality meal.

WRAAA conducted a Bid Spec overhaul by making meal quality the primary focus, restructuring their bid spec language to clearly spell out acceptable and unacceptable conditions. WRAAA wrote into their bid spec that if meals were not satisfactory with the meal contracted meal quality, WRAAA would receive a monetary credit for those meals from the caterer.  WRAAA documented problems and made unannounced visits to caterer’s commissaries to monitor compliance with the agreement, the standards for service set by the agency, the Ohio Department of Aging (ODA) and the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODAg), Division of Meat Inspection. Additionally, they stipulate the use of standardized recipe including: recipe name, yield, ingredients listing exact amount and order used. They specified measuring equipment and pan size to be used and allowed NO additional ingredients.  WRAAA examined the recipes the caterer uses; looking at the ingredients and amounts called for As Purchased (AP) versus Edible Portion (EP).  They calculated recipe yields and compared them to recognized standards.  Monies were deducted from the monthly payment if the recipe yield did not meet requirement portion amounts.  WRAAA’s RD/LD approves the cycle menu and the caterer is penalized for unauthorized menu changes. Additionally, WRAAA deducts monies from the caterer’s monthly payment:

  • a percentage of the bid price per meal for each food group for those items that did not meet the bid specs
  • when substitutions or additions were made without the agency’s approval.

A noncompliance clause was written into their bid spec which gave the:

  • ability to terminate agreement if caterer failed to comply
  • caterer 30 days to correct problems

If the caterers did not comply, the agency could terminate the agreement. This AAA’s very successful bid specification overhaul increased meal quality, improved client satisfactions, decreased the use of processed food products and controlled costs.

Why is it important to use Bid Specs?
Bid specification use allows Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs to:

  • Better control procurement process
  • Improve meal quality
  • Meet the anticipated increased number of clients
  • Offer more choice
  • Serve more than one meal per day
  • Accommodate preferences of ethnic populations
  • Provide modified and therapeutic meals to those older adults diverted from nursing homes to home and community based services
  • Diversify services offered
  • Improve nutritional status of clients.

Good bid specifications in multi-year contracts will help OAA Nutrition Programs avoid:

  • Being locked into low quality meals for a long time
  • Having unacceptable product substitutions
  • Having unhappy clients
  • Having excessive plate waste.
  • When sellers and buyers know they are contracting for the same products, there will be mutual understanding within the purchasing practices of OAA Nutrition Programs.
  • Quality meals provide greater nutritional benefits because they are more likely to be eaten by OAA Nutrition Program participants who are known to be at high nutrition risk.


Special Thanks to:
  • Janice Davis, RD/LD,
    Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging
    925 Euclid Avenue, Suite 600, Cleveland, OH 44115
    216-621-8010 or 1-800-626-7277

Compiled by Barbara Kamp, MS, RD, Susan Cote, MS and the staff of the National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging,
Florida International University, Miami, FL
Contact: nutritionandaging@fiu.edu

November 2006

This project is supported, in part, by a grant from the Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, reflect official DHHS policy.

Posted on: 011/17/06
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National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity & Aging
| Florida International University, OE 200, Miami, FL 33199
Phone: 305-348-1517 | Fax: 305-348-1518 | E-mail:

This website is supported, in part, by a grant from the Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human
Services (DHHS). Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their
findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, reflect official DHHS policy.