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Rural Practice Guidelines

Using Commodities and Canned Foods in Group Homes for Adults with Disabilities

September 2004

This Practice Guideline describes The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) — commonly referred to as the “commodities” program — of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service. Canned vegetables and fruits are the most readily-available commodities, so this Guideline also provides general information about safe storage and use of canned foods.

Researchers at the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC: Rural) recently calculated the average amount of money spent on food by 15 Montana group homes for adults with developmental disabilities. By USDA standards, that amount was less than the most thrifty family food budget. Developmental disabilities service providers are doing a lot with a little! However, it appears that many group homes save money by not buying fresh fruits and vegetables, lean cuts of meat, and whole grain products.

This study showed that the diets of individuals living in group homes could be improved, which would reduce nutrition-related secondary conditions and improve individuals’ health and quality of life. If service providers participated in the USDA commodities program, savings could be used on additional, healthful groceries or for other household, educational, or recreational needs.

What is TEFAP? TEFAP is a federally-funded program in which the USDA buys U.S. grown food and ships it to the states. The amount distributed depends on the state’s number of low-income and unemployed people. Each state has a TEFAP office to administer the program and distribute the commodities to selected local organizations. The local organizations either distribute commodities directly to households, serve meals, or distribute food to other local organizations serving at-risk populations, such as people with disabilities, children, pregnant women, or elderly.

Why Participate in TEFAP? Commodities are a way to stretch dollars from other
sources such as Supplemental Security Income, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, and state contracts. Using commodities may significantly lower group home food bills and allow tight food budgets to include healthier foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, and whole grain products. The savings could also allow more variety in menus and accommodate individuals’ food preferences. The savings could also be used to buy exercise equipment, health club memberships, and/or transportation to fitness facilities. Pairing increased physical activity with improved nutrition is a proven way to improve an individual’s health and quality of life.

TEFAP is the commodities program most often used by group homes for non-elderly adults. Montana’s 2004 Federal Fiscal Year (FFY 10/03-9/04) TEFAP budget for purchasing food was $394,000, and the FFY 2005 budget appears to be similar. When possible, the USDA also makes “bonus” food items available to Montana TEFAP at no additional cost. In FFY 2003, Montana TEFAP received $300,000 in bonus items and in FFY 2004 over $600,000. Montana TEFAP provides commodities to over 80 food pantries and 85 non-profit entities. Although many Montana agencies already receive commodities, the state TEFAP director says, “I encourage new facilities to apply, as there is usually food available for someone who needs it and you won’t be taking food out of anyone’s mouth.”

How to Participate in TEFAP? To receive TEFAP commodities, a group home must be operated by a primarily non-profit entity. The Montana TEFAP has a master contract with the Disabilities Services Division (DSD) of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). Service corporations contracting with DSD/DPHHS to provide congregate living/food services to people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) are eligible to receive commodities. The process is:

1. The service provider calls the TEFAP State Food Distribution Supervisor at

2. If the service provider is not under the DSD contract, it must contract directly with Montana TEFAP. TEFAP sends the service provider an application and a
self-evaluation form to complete and return. If the service provider contracts with DSD, it can skip this step and go directly to step 3. The TEFAP Supervisor can verify whether a provider is covered under the DSD contract.

3. Montana TEFAP does a field review of the group home(s) to ensure that safe and proper commodity storage is available and provides detailed guidelines to group home staff on safely and properly storing food. The goal is to ensure that food is not wasted due to improper storage (see chart below).

4. Group homes receive quarterly order forms listing available commodities. Orders are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, so for best selection, order forms should be completed and returned promptly. However, no eligible agency or congregate living facility has been denied food.

5. The food is delivered to Montana group homes at no cost. The group home manager reports any problems to the TEFAP State Food Distribution Supervisor. Anyone who eats at the facility or group home may share in meals prepared with commodity foods.

How are Commodities Stored? We suggest that group home staff monitor their food supply by posting shelf tags listing each product’s delivery or purchase date and its “use-by” date. For example: “Canned peaches. Delivered/Purchased January 2004. Use by January 2005.” The chart below lists general use-by dates for many foods.

Redistribute food you won’t use! If foods won’t be eaten by their use-by dates or there is too much to use quickly, staff might donate it to a local food bank or other organization for immediate use. For large amounts of commodities that must be used quickly, call Montana TEFAP’s Food Distribution Supervisor, who will redistribute the food to organizations that can use it immediately. Although taste and nutritional value of canned food diminishes, the food is safe to eat unless its can is dented, rusty, swollen, or pitted. If the can is compromised, the food inside has spoiled and must be discarded.

Discard past-date commodities or spoiled food! Insects can infest dried goods (pasta, rice, cereal, etc). Check these foods regularly for signs of bugs and discard infested items. When staff put new groceries away after shopping, they might routinely inspect existing inventory for insects.

Fats and oils can decompose and become rancid, a type of spoilage that’s not always easy to detect. Refrigerate fats, oils and nut butters to slow decomposition and lengthen their shelf life.

Description of chart.


This chart is a general guideline for food storage. See USDA factsheets for specific storage information for individual commodity items.

Resources for Using Specific Commodities:

Food Fact Sheets: The USDA provides a factsheet for each new food product introduced into the commodities program. The fact sheet describes the product and its packaging; provides guidelines on its storage and shelf life (“use-by” date); lists tips for using the product effectively; and includes nutritional information such as serving size, fat content, sodium (salt) levels, etc. Fact sheets also include several inexpensive recipes using the product. Fact sheets and recipes are on the USDA web site in pdf format at http://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/facts/hhpfacts/hp-tefap.htm . Paper copies are available by mail by calling the TEFAP State Food Distribution Supervisor at 406-447-4262. Staff might print or order these fact sheets and keep them in a three-ring binder.

Healthy Thrifty Meals Commodities Cookbook: This USDA publication contains meal plans and recipes using commodities. Download it free at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/food/rec-thrifty/thriftym.pdf  or call toll-free: 1-888-878-3256.

County Extension Agent: Your Extension office has information on food safety and storing and cooking with canned goods and commodities. For your local Extension office, look in Government pages of the phone book, or call the Montana State Extension office: 406-994-5702.

Besides TEFAP, other programs also supplement the diets of low-income Montanans:

1. Nutrition Supplemental Incentive Program (formerly the Nutrition Program for the Elderly) for people over the age of 60 is a congregate meal program available at senior centers or delivered by Meals-on-Wheels. Sharing meals at senior centers is an opportunity for seniors with disabilities to be included in their communities.

2. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program is for women, infants, children, and adults over age 60 who meet income guidelines. This monthly food package includes cheese, canned meat, canned vegetables, canned fruit and juice, pasta, rice or instant potatoes, evaporated and powdered milk and occasional bonus items. There may be a waiting list for this program.  Interested persons should contact their local Agency on Aging for information.

3. Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations are for tribal members who live on reservations and meet income requirements. This program is available as an alternative to the Food Stamp Program. Monthly allotment packages include frozen and canned meats, cheese, butter, fresh and canned vegetables and fruits, flour and cereal products, and dry beans.

4. Individuals with disabilities often qualify for other food assistance programs, such as Food Stamps or Meals on Wheels. Food Stamp eligibility requirements have changed, but the eligibility of persons with disabilities tends to be protected. To check eligibility and for information, call 1-800-332-2272 and ask for the phone number of your local Food Stamp office.

For more information, contact:

Kathleen Humphries, Ph.D.
Montana Disability and Health Program, Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities,
The University of Montana Rural Institute
52 Corbin Hall, Missoula, MT 59812-7056
888-268-2743 Toll-free; 406-243-2515 (V); 406-243-4200 (TT); 406-243-2349 Fax;
http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu, https://mtdh.ruralinstitute.umt.edu

The information provided in this report was supported by Grant #R04/CCR818822-02 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agency.

This report was prepared by Kathleen Humphries RTC: Rural, 2004. It is available in standard print, large print, Braille and ASCII DOS text formats.