Snarled supply chains force local schools to get creative to feed students

Oct. 6—The limited availability of truckers nationwide has slowed food deliveries for local school meal programs, and officials have turned to strategies like ordering early, finding alternative trucking companies and buying from area farmers.

"The infrequency of deliveries has increased," said Devin Williamson, director of child nutrition at Decatur City Schools.

Williamson said they are having to order early to make sure food items are arriving at schools and to avoid dealing with shortages.

"Before it was a day or two our trucks would be delayed," Williamson said.

Last week, a delivery scheduled for Tuesday still hadn't arrived on Friday. Instead it was schedule to arrive this week, while Decatur City Schools students are out on fall break.

"Thankfully, we're ordering our food ahead of time to give them an extra week to deliver it to us."

Lawrence County Schools has dealt with the same issues.

"We are used to getting our deliveries once a week," said Michelle Chenault, Lawrence County child nutrition director. "Now, sometimes that rolls over into the next week. We've started to stock for two weeks at a time."

Decatur City Deputy Superintendent Dwight Satterfield said the school system has had to pick up food items itself and deliver them to the schools.

"Three weeks ago, we turned to a Decatur company that we've worked with in the past called White Oak Transportation and they sent a refrigeration truck down as well as two box trucks for us to use," Satterfield said.

Satterfield is concerned about the future and how much longer the school system will be able to deliver food products because of an apparent shortage of CDL drivers.

"We can't go to Birmingham to Wood Fruitticher every week without rising cost," Satterfield said. "If they had to make that a weekly route, obviously that's going to cost more. You don't get a refrigeration truck and a driver for eight hours without rising cost."

Another item that is being delivered in decreasing amounts to area schools is lunch trays.

"We are being told that several lunch trays are being discontinued due to labor shortages in the factories with both our main vendor and supplemental vendors," Williamson said. "Home Depot has been a really great vendor that's worked with us. Even though they don't have the five-compartment trays that we normally use, they give us these to-go trays, so we're going to use those to supplement the lack of five-compartment trays."

Chenault said, "Wood Fruitticher is rationing each school to three cases, no matter the enrollment size. Our smaller schools are ordering their three-case ration and then sharing with the larger schools. We're prepared to begin washing the hard plastic trays again, but that will mean more labor for an already stressed group of workers."

Chenault said they are having to simplify their once diverse menu as a result of the food vendors' labor shortages.

"We're having to order more food and change our menu," Chenault said. "We are blessed with a lot of commodities that we have had stocked in our freezers since last year. We usually try new products, but this year we're having to stick with a very basic menu."

Lawrence County Schools has been working with a farm in Moulton for the last two years to provide fresh produce.

"We're blessed and fortunate to get our produce from LouAllen Farms through the Sweet Grown Alabama program," Chenault said. "We got strawberries from them last spring."

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