Pizza, fruit, chicken, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have long been staples on Hillsborough County’s school lunch menus. But they’ve been harder to come by this school year.
It’s also been more difficult to get disposable trays, lids and other paper and plastic supplies because of global supply disruptions, said Shani Hall, general manager of student nutrition services for Hillsborough County Public Schools.
“If you want to do soup, but don’t have a bowl, you’re stuck,” Hall said.
Welcome to school lunch 2021.
Supply-chain problems and labor shortages amid the pandemic are adding headaches to the important daily job of feeding students. Food manufacturers are struggling to meet demand. Distributors are contending with snags getting food to the schools. And schools themselves are shorthanded in the kitchen.
District officials in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties said they are feeling the strain in their cafeterias. But they say they’re faring well compared to stories they’ve heard from across the country of schools having to make last-minute Costco runs or eschewing hot lunches due to a lack of staff.
Still, they say they are having to get creative and are retooling their menus at the last minute to account for ordered items that didn’t arrive or to make meal prep easier for cafeteria workers.
“If things weren’t so bad out there, you’d think this is awful,” Hall said. “What our kids are feeling is less variety on the menu, but we’re able to offer a menu.”
The Hillsborough school district gets notifications almost daily of items it’s ordered that didn’t come in to its distributor, said spokesperson Tanya Arja. The district chef changes the menu based on what comes in, she said. Because of that, what’s served may not match what parents and children expected, and there may be fewer options for picky eaters.
Hall gave a recent example where the district was unable to get pizza — a perennial kid favorite. So some schools served Asian chicken instead. It may not have been what students were clamoring for, Hall said, “but we’re offering food.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in September issued a waiver that would keep schools from being penalized if they do not meet the federal nutrition standards because of a coronavirus-related supply-chain disruption. It also increased its reimbursement rate for schools, recognizing that prices have risen during the pandemic.
“Schools are still required to the best of their ability to meet all nutrition standards for school meals, but if a supplier shows up and doesn’t have whole grain buns for the day, schools are able to serve a white bun for the day without getting penalized,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the nonprofit School Nutrition Association.
That association in July released survey results from its members saying that 97 percent were worried about continued pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions, and 90 percent were worried about staff shortages.
School meal program directors still don’t know when those two issues might get better, Pratt-Heavner said.
Schools in Pasco County have made substitutions to replace unavailable orders, said district spokesperson Steve Hegarty. The district also is seeing significant staff shortages in cafeterias, he said, made worse at times if staff members have to stay home on quarantine. But he’s not aware of any instance where a school has had to abandon the usual fare it would provide students.
“This is not an ideal situation for us, but at this point, we feel we’ve been able to weather it,” Hegarty said. “I don’t know if it will be better next week or the week after that or the week after that.”
Districts across the state and country are having similar problems, he said, pointing to the St. Johns County School District, which has a note on its website warning parents that “unprecedented issues with the supply chain … are causing us to alter posted menus with little or no notice.”
Pinellas County schools aren’t seeing wholesale shortages so far, but rather a lot of substitutions, said Lynn Geist, the district’s director of food and nutrition. Apple juice temporarily replaced orange juice on menus. The chicken nuggets are different or may be replaced by chicken tenders or another chicken dish. Kids may get Chex Mix instead of Cheez-Its. Styrofoam plates are sometimes replacing the more eco-friendly plates the district normally uses.
The district’s staffing situation is improving, thanks in part to aggressive hiring efforts, Geist said, but cafeteria job vacancies are still about 30 percent higher than pre-pandemic.
Thanksgiving is still about a month away, but Geist already knows that many schools won’t offer the full Thanksgiving meal because of a turkey shortage and transportation issues.
At Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater, school food and nutrition manager Jodie Gedenberg points to boxes of stuffing mix she has stockpiled for next month. She knows some of her students wouldn’t have a Thanksgiving meal if it weren’t for school lunch, so she ordered early, knowing the supply issues.
It was Gedenberg who decorated her serving area with pumpkins and gourds this month, positioning one gourd to look like the tongue of a shark, the school’s mascot. She said she feels bad when she can’t give students the meal they’d been expecting, but tries to offer good replacement options.
On Monday, students didn’t seem to mind or even notice that they were getting chicken tenders instead of the advertised chicken nuggets.
“The chicken nuggets are better today,” announced kindergartner Evan Williams.
Asked what he likes about school lunch, kindergartner Arquise Johnson offered high praise.
“They cook the food good, and the cashiers say your name and give you a juice,” Arquise said. “I give it a 10 out of 10.”
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