No Veggies, No Buns, Few Forks: Schools Scramble to Feed Students Amid Shortages

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 25: School lunches are prepared by Food Service Workers at Sun Yat Sen M.S. 131 on February 25, 2021 in New York City. New York City middle school students who opted for in-person learning in 2020 were allowed back for the first time since November due to COVID-19 (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
·8 min read

WASHINGTON — School officials in a Missouri city have been making twice-weekly runs to Sam’s Club to stock up on frozen pizzas and hot dogs. A Kansas school district ran out of vegetables for two days last month. And a district in St. Paul, Minnesota, has an emergency supply of frozen grilled cheese sandwiches in case it runs out of all other food.

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

Officials say they are scrambling to provide meals for students — many of whom rely on the food they eat at school as a significant, and sometimes the only, source of daily nutrition. Many educators say they expect supply-chain issues will only worsen in the coming months.

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The issue stems from a confluence of events, much of it tied to the pandemic. Labor shortages have rocked food distributors and manufacturers, who say they do not have enough people to drive trucks, pull products from warehouses or work assembly lines. The virus has exacerbated the country’s shortage of truck drivers, and companies say they do not foresee enough young drivers applying to replace those aging out of the workforce.

Jenna Knuth, the director of food and nutrition services at North Kansas City Schools in Missouri, grew worried that she would not have enough food to feed all 21,500 students in her district after three big food distributors said they would stop delivering supplies. So Knuth’s staff members are making regular trips to the local Sam’s Club and Restaurant Depot stores, where they clear out the frozen pizzas, tater tots and hot dogs.

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

“We’re bringing in whatever food we can,” Knuth said. She is now “begging” local distributors and suppliers for contracts.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Agriculture Department has issued a slate of waivers giving schools more flexibility to meet federal nutritional guidelines. On Sept. 15, the department issued a new waiver preventing school meal programs from being financially penalized if they fail to meet the guidelines because of supply-chain issues. It has also increased the rate it will reimburse schools for the cost of food products.

“We know that districts are doing everything they can to put healthy, nutritious food on the plate for kids,” said Stacy Dean, the department’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “We want to support that effort and reassure them that no one is going to get in trouble because of an unexpected difficulty.”

Beth Wallace, the president of the School Nutrition Association, said the group was asking federal officials to further increase the reimbursement rate and temporarily loosen requirements that certain products be American-made. According to a recent survey conducted by the association, 97% of school meal program directors reported having concerns about supply-chain disruptions.

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

When delivery trucks do arrive, they often do not carry all of the food the district ordered, Jones said, adding that Olathe was receiving only about 65% of its orders.

The cost of food has also spiked as distributors pass on price increases. At times, the district does not know how much a delivery will cost until the truck pulls up to the dock, forcing the district to either accept whatever the price is or risk running out of food, Jones said.

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

Supply-chain disruptions have snarled more than just school lunches. Coronavirus outbreaks have shut down factories around the world, leaving many companies light on inventory. That has led to delays in shipments, rising costs and shortages of a wide range of goods, including computer chips, bicycle parts and place mats.

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 student(s) to school with meals from home is not a burden for your family, we would encourage this option as a short-term request,” the note read.

Richmond Public Schools in Virginia replaced hot lunches with “grab and go” meals this year because of a shortage of food workers and concerns about the virus spreading.

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 especially liked the school’s pizza, back when meals were hot. But after she picked up lunch this month and saw that it contained an unappealing sandwich with deli meat that she could not identify, she decided she could no longer count on the school for food.

“It just looked gross,” she said. Her mother, Emily Kavanaugh, said she was now packing Maggie’s lunches for school.

Matthew Stanley, a spokesman for Richmond Public Schools, said in a statement that the district was working with its vendor to “quality-check all meals” and recruiting more school nutrition workers to resume hot lunches.

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

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

“We’re not really expecting to let our guard down until late winter or early spring,” Koppen said.

The shortages are not limited to food: A dearth of disposable spoons, forks and knives has forced some schools to begin conserving flatware.

At the Dallas Independent School District, schools now offer mostly finger foods for breakfast on Tuesdays and Thursdays to reduce the need for plastic cutlery. The district, which normally has about a month’s worth of cutlery stocked up, is now down to a nine-day supply. On Tuesdays, all lunches across the district consist solely of finger foods and no flatware is offered.

Instead of tossed salad and apple sauce, students will get carrot sticks and apple slices. And in place of spaghetti and meatballs, chicken tenders are offered.

“I’ve never seen the supply chain in this much chaos, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Michael Rosenberger, the district’s executive director for food and child nutrition services.

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

Suzanne Rajczi, the chief executive of Ginsberg’s Foods in Hudson, New York, said the distributor had to drop about 80 school districts because it lacked enough drivers and warehouse workers. Even for the schools it is continuing to work with, the company had to cut back delivery times.

The Rich Products Corp., a manufacturer in Buffalo that supplies food to more than 2,000 school districts, is struggling to hire workers, said Kevin Spratt, a senior vice president who leads the company’s K-12 team. Several of its plants have as many as 50 positions open.

The labor shortages on top of a scarcity of ingredients and packaging materials have made it more difficult for the company to fulfill its orders. It has paused production on about 15 products it usually sells to schools, Spratt said, though it has been able to offer substitutions.

“We don’t have enough labor in our facilities to keep up with the demand,” Spratt said.

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

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

Even where Anchorage is able to offer hot meals, it has become difficult to plan and prepare menus. Scrambling to make substitutions has started to weigh on the district’s staff: Four cafeteria managers have quit since the school year started, he said.

“They feel underappreciated,” Mergens said. “Nobody really understands how much of an impact the cafeteria manager has on the day-to-day operations of the school until they’re not there.”

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