No vegetables, few forks: schools are scrambling to feed students


WASHINGTON – School officials in one town in Missouri visit Sam’s Club twice a week to stock up on frozen pizzas and hot dogs. A Kansas school district ran out of vegetables for two days last month. And a neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota has an emergency supply of frozen grilled cheese sandwiches in case it runs out of all other foods.

Schools across the country are facing shortages of basic foods like chicken, bread, apple juice, and even plastic cutlery, as supply chain issues and a lack of truck drivers. complicate the most basic task of feeding students.

Officials say they scramble to provide meals for students – many of whom depend on the food they eat at school as an important, and sometimes the only, source of daily nutrition. Many educators say they expect the supply chain issues to worsen in the coming months.

The problem stems from a confluence of events, largely related to the pandemic. Labor shortages have rocked distributors and food manufacturers, who say they don’t have enough staff to drive trucks, haul products from warehouses or work on assembly lines. The virus has exacerbated the shortage of truck drivers in the country, and companies say they are not providing enough young drivers applying to replace aging ones.

Jenna Knuth, director of food and nutrition services for North Kansas City schools in Missouri, feared she would not have enough food to feed the 21,500 students in her district after three major food distributors announced that they would stop delivering supplies. So, Ms. Knuth’s staff members regularly visit local Sam’s Club and Restaurant Depot stores, where they clean frozen pizzas, tater tots and hot dogs.

Many products they buy at wholesale stores do not meet federal nutritional guidelines, Ms. Knuth said, adding that while the food is not unhealthy, it contains higher levels of sodium and fat than products that the district would usually purchase.

“We bring all the food we can,” Ms. Knuth said. She is now “begging” local distributors and suppliers to sign contracts.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Department of Agriculture has published a list of waivers giving schools more flexibility to meet federal nutritional guidelines. On September 15, the ministry issued a new waiver preventing school lunch programs from being penalized financially if they fail to meet guidelines due to supply chain issues. It has also increased the rate it will reimburse schools for the cost of food items.

“We know that districts are doing everything they can to put healthy, nutritious food on children’s plates,” said Stacy Dean, assistant deputy secretary of the food, nutrition and consumer services department. “We want to support this effort and reassure them that no one will be in trouble because of an unexpected difficulty.”

Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association, said the group is asking federal officials to further increase the reimbursement rate and temporarily relax requirements that certain products must be made in the United States. According to a recent survey conducted by the association, 97 percent of school meal program directors said they had concerns about supply chain disruptions.

Cindy Jones, assistant director of food services for the Olathe School District in Kansas, said schools in the area ran out of vegetables for two days last month after a delivery was delayed. The district encouraged the students to pick up extra fruit instead.

When delivery trucks arrive, they often don’t carry all of the food ordered by the district, Ms Jones said, adding that Olathe only receives about 65% of her orders.

The cost of food has also increased, with distributors passing on price increases. Sometimes the district doesn’t know how much a delivery will cost until the truck arrives at the dock, forcing the district to accept the price or risk running out of food, Ms Jones said.

“Of course we will take care of the children, but that is one of our concerns,” she said. “If we don’t get enough reimbursement and funding to pay for these additional costs, what will that get us down the road? “

Supply chain disruptions hampered more than school lunches. Coronavirus outbreaks have closed factories around the world, leaving many companies running out of inventory. This has resulted in delays in shipments, increased costs and shortages of a wide range of products, including computer chips, bike parts and placemats.

At Liberty Public Schools in Missouri, district officials sent a note on Sept. 13 encouraging parents to send their children to school with packed lunches.

“If sending your students to school with meals at home is not a burden on your family, we would encourage this option as a short-term request,” the note said.

Public schools in Richmond, Va. Have replaced hot lunches with ‘take out’ meals this year amid a shortage of food workers and concerns about the spread of the virus.

Maggie Cobb, 13, an eighth grader at Binford Middle School in Richmond, said she used to eat at school two or three times a week. She particularly liked school pizza, back in the days when meals were hot. But after eating lunch this month and seeing that it contained an unappealing sandwich with cold cuts that she couldn’t identify, she decided she could no longer rely on school for food.

“It looked disgusting,” she said. Her mother, Emily Kavanaugh, said she now makes Maggie’s lunches for school.

Matthew Stanley, spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools, said in a statement that the district is working with its supplier to “control the quality of all meals” and is recruiting more school nutrition workers to resume hot lunches.

St. Paul officials have started stocking up grilled cheese sandwiches and making substitutions on the fly, said Stacy Koppen, director of nutrition services.

A few weeks ago, the workers making hamburgers for lunch ran out of buns and had to switch to regular bread.

“We don’t really expect to let our guard down until the end of winter or the start of spring,” Ms. Koppen said.

The shortages are not limited to food: a shortage of disposable spoons, forks and knives has forced some schools to start saving cutlery.

In the Dallas Independent School District, schools now primarily offer breakfast snacks on Tuesdays and Thursdays to reduce the need for plastic cutlery. The district, which normally has about a month of cutlery in stock, is now down to nine days. On Tuesdays, all breakfasts in the neighborhood consist only of appetizers and no cover is offered.

Instead of salad and applesauce, students will be given carrot sticks and apple slices. And instead of spaghetti and meatballs, chicken fillets are offered.

“I have never seen the supply chain in such chaos, and have been doing so for 30 years,” said Michael Rosenberger, district executive director for food and child nutrition services.

Labor shortages have compounded the problem, crippling both food distributors and manufacturers.

Suzanne Rajczi, general manager of Ginsberg’s Foods in Hudson, NY, said the distributor had to abandon about 80 school districts because there was a lack of drivers and warehouse workers. Even for the schools it continues to work with, the company has had to reduce delivery times.

The Rich Products Corporation, a Buffalo maker that supplies food to more than 2,000 school districts, is struggling to hire workers, said Kevin Spratt, senior vice president who leads the K-12 team. business. Several of its factories have up to 50 open positions.

Labor shortages in addition to a shortage of ingredients and packaging materials made it more difficult for the company to fill its orders. It has suspended production of around 15 products it usually sells to schools, Spratt said, although it has been able to offer substitutions.

“We do not have enough manpower in our facilities to meet demand,” said Mr. Spratt.

The labor shortage has also spread to schools. Andrew Mergens, senior director of student nutrition for the Anchorage School District, said the district could not provide hot meals at seven of its schools because there were not enough workers to prepare and serve the food. . Instead, the district offers prepackaged and shelf-stable meals for lunch.

“As you can imagine, shelf-stable meat isn’t great, but that’s all we have,” Mergens said.

Even where Anchorage is able to provide hot meals, it has become difficult to plan and prepare menus. The difficulty in making replacements began to weigh on district staff: four cafeteria managers have resigned since the start of the school year, he said.

“They feel underestimated,” Mr Mergens said. “No one really understands how much of an impact the cafeteria director has on the day-to-day operations of the school until he’s not there. “

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