The posted menu at the school cafeteria may list pizza, chicken nuggets and other entrees, plus three kinds of milk and assorted fruit juices.
But more and more this school year, students walking into lunch soon learn they actually have far fewer options, perhaps only spaghetti, with the pasta borrowed from another school district. Will they eat it?
And it’s possible that their school principal will be the one ladling out their meal as food service programs face worsening staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has put a stranglehold on the food supply chain. Kansas City area officials say distributors are catering to more lucrative customers, such as grocery stores and larger restaurants, leaving school districts scrambling to feed the thousands of children who rely on them for nutritious meals, sometimes three times a day.
For weeks, Grennan Sims, the director of nutrition services for the Hickman Mills school district, has been calling food distributors and neighboring districts, trying to piece together enough meals to feed students amid nationwide shortages.
Earlier this month, Sims said, the district went an entire week without receiving any of its food shipments. And now, Hickman Mills has been informed that it won’t have a prime meal distributor as of Nov. 9, after the district’s main provider, Kohl Wholesale, terminated its contact.
Officials with both the Missouri and Kansas education departments said districts large and small are facing similar challenges.
The Park Hill school district announced that it also lost Kohl Wholesale as its primary food distributor. “They also canceled the contracts for every other school district they work with in our region,” officials said in a notice to families.
North Kansas City school officials said two of their largest vendors dropped the district as a customer last month. Then a few weeks later, “our third and final large food supplier broke our contract, informing us that they, too, can no longer fulfill our orders.”
As the pandemic disrupts supply chains across the world, vendors struggle to consistently package and ship food, made worse by a shortage of truck drivers and warehouse workers.
“Businesses are in a really tough position to make a decision for the viability of their company. On the retail side, there’s a much higher profit margin. In schools, there’s a high volume with a low profit margin,” Sims said. “So they’re having to decide where’s the best bang for my buck. The sad part is now there are kids potentially suffering because of that.”
Hickman Mills, she said, has been providing three free meals a day to all of its students for several years, because “our kids need it.”
“We have a vulnerable population here in Hickman Mills,” she said. “School is the only place where some of our kids get a hot meal.”
Strained schools working nonstop
Hickman Mills typically receives about 30% of its commodities, such as fruits, vegetables and some packaged foods, from the state, Sims said, provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But supply chain issues delayed many of those shipments at the start of this school year, said Barbara Shaw, nutrition services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Missouri districts were then left to call other distributors, asking them to send trucks and help supplement meals. But those distributors are already strained, and often can’t fulfill orders.
“Around Sept. 1, we missed our first truck. Then another truck, then another truck. … We were getting about 20% of our trucks. And maybe one-third of it was shorted,” Sims said. “And now we had a week where we didn’t get any trucks.”
Shaw said districts should soon be receiving their first commodity shipments and “start getting some of the fruits and vegetable products. Other commercial items will still be of concern. But that should relieve the schools and distributors.”
Kansas, on the other hand, provides districts with cash in lieu of commodities, said Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness with the Kansas State Department of Education. But they are “experiencing the same supply chain issues as they are nationwide.”
“Two major distributors, Sysco and US Foods, have dropped a lot of their contracts for child nutrition programs statewide,” Johnson said.
The USDA is providing free meals to all students regardless of their income through the end of this school year, due to the pandemic. It also allows districts to find alternative ways to procure foods and goods in an emergency. And it has granted waivers so that districts with missing meal components will not be penalized as they typically would under school nutrition requirements.
State and district officials said they have asked the department for additional help.
“We’re talking to our government officials to see if they could offer financial incentives to those distributors that prioritize schools and kids,” Sims said. “If there was some kind of financial relief or an incentive to serve schools over retail, that would be great. We want kids in school. We want things to be normal. A huge part of that is feeding kids.”
In the meantime, districts, which are short-staffed themselves, are left to figure out how to get food on every child’s tray.
“The personnel shortages are real. I know that Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe have been running at least 20-25% short staffed, and not even getting many applications,” Johnson said.
“A real example in the state is we had a whole kitchen that had to quarantine due to COVID, and the superintendent had to ask, ‘How are we going to feed the kids today’” she said. “To hear how school nutrition professionals have accomplished what they are with such limited staff is definitely heartwarming and encouraging.”
Principals and district administrators have jumped in to serve lunch in some schools that are short on cafeteria workers.
“If it was just a crisis with food, maybe it wouldn’t seem quite as overwhelming. But we also have continued staff shortages in our schools,” Sims said. “When you don’t have 25% of your staff you should have in your kitchens, you do everything you can to make it work, and try to make sure our kids don’t feel the effects of it all.”
This is not sustainable
Sims said school officials have had to get creative to pull together new menus with the food available.
Some larger districts are lucky enough to have their own warehouses, and have been stockpiling food. And they’ve let smaller districts store food in their freezers.
“We might have ground beef and tomato sauce, but we just need spaghetti noodles. Or we’ve got some cheese sauce and a little bit of macaroni, but if we can just get more we can have mac and cheese. So we do have a small supply available, where we can go a couple of weeks with creative menu planning,” she said.
Officials have asked neighboring districts to include additional orders of cereal and other items with their shipments, as Kansas City area districts work together to ensure every student is fed.
Some smaller and local distributors also have pulled through, sending trucks of food to districts in need.
And another issue is paper goods and cutlery, officials said. Some districts have asked their communities for donations.
“A lot of smaller schools are able to go to grocery stores, Sam’s Club or Costco and get some of these items. But larger schools can’t do that,” said Kari Monsees, deputy commissioner with the Missouri education department’s financial division. “And when smaller schools are going out to shop for students, that’s taking a lot of their time. So there’s a concern of burnout among staff, too. How much longer are schools going to have to continue spending every minute trying to find food?”
It’s not sustainable, officials said. And many districts, like Hickman Mills, will soon need to secure contracts with new primary vendors to keep feeding children.
Districts are warning families that posted lunch menus are likely to be different when a student walks into the cafeteria. Many schools have cut down on options and are serving what they can. Some officials said items like juice, milk and sides have run out midday.
That’s been a challenge for many students, officials said, explaining that children eat better when they have options.
“It may be that students may not get the choices they would like, but schools are continuing to provide nutritious, well-balanced meals,” Johnson said.
“But it’s especially difficult to accommodate the needs of all of the special diets we have for children. It creates a lot of uncertainty and extra work when we don’t get products in. Then we have to determine how to substitute items for food allergens,” she said. “That’s another wrinkle that has created a lot of extra work.”
Some families have decided to pack lunches more often for their children. But that’s simply not an option for others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a brighter light on how critical schools are for providing services beyond a child’s education. When schools shut down in March 2020, nutrition workers were among the first to step in and ensure every student could eat.
And they continue to do everything they can so that children’s most basic needs can be met.
“We had families come to us in tears, saying if they didn’t have us providing meals, they would lose their home, that they can’t afford to buy this food,” Sims said. “We don’t want to put that extra burden on families.”
In the Kansas City region, roughly 1 in 6 children are at risk of hunger. That’s about 16% of the child population across 26 counties, according to Harvesters Community Food Network.
“It was so important to folks to get kids back in school. And I agree with that 100%, that we needed our kids back in school,” Sims said. “But we also need to make sure there’s food to feed them when they’re there. If we can’t feed them, what are we doing?”
“It’s just so sad. It makes my heart hurt.”