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Supply chain issues, labor shortages make serving school lunches a struggle

"Between this and the delta variant and so many other things, it's almost worse than the previous year."
Image: A student takes away her mask as she eats lunch in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 11, 2021.
A student eats lunch in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 11.Amira Karaoud / Reuters file

Debilitating supply chain disruptions have upended the beginning of the school year for districts across the country as food shortages force officials to find creative ways to adequately feed children.

In Alabama, it has led staff at Gulf Shores City Schools to acquire food from different vendors, shop at grocery stores and even cook meals themselves.

In Wisconsin, the Manitowoc Public School District said proteins like chicken are in short supply, while a truckload of hamburger patties never showed and a bakery supplier said it was out of hot dog buns.

And in Indiana, a school district outside of Fort Wayne says it's not only having trouble procuring certain foods but disposable trays, silverware and condiments, too.

The problems stretch from farm to cafeteria table, worsened by the pandemic and greater economic forces: A labor shortage has affected the food distribution and production industries. There's not enough workers on production lines, in warehouses and driving delivery vehicles. And at schools, unfilled cafeteria positions have forced staff to serve lunches and some have stopped providing hot meals altogether.

"There are supply chain issues. Issues with food distributors. The inability to keep people employed. Driver shortages. Every week, it's like, what's next?" said Liz Campbell, senior director of legislative and government affairs at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade association whose membership includes registered dietitians at schools.

The problem has grown acute over the last month, prompting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday to announce initiatives to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions, including $1.5 billion in funding and a waiver that prevents schools from being penalized if they can't meet certain federal regulatory requirements, such as serving specific types of food, because of the shortages.

School meal programs have become even more crucial during the pandemic after the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last spring that it would extend universal free lunch through this school year — a way to reach millions of children burdened by hunger and food insecurity.

Such programs have traditionally served lower-income children. Pre-pandemic, nearly 100,000 schools served lunches to 29.6 million students daily, according to the USDA. But school closings during the pandemic meant many students may not have had the normal access to meals.

This school year was supposed to be different.

"Many thought that this was going to be a transition year before things could finally get back to normal next school year," Campbell said. "But between this and the delta variant and so many other things, it's almost worse than the previous year because there was so much expectation things were going to start getting better."

A back-to-school survey by the School Nutrition Association, which represents more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals, found that 97 percent of program directors who responded were concerned about continued pandemic-related supply chain issues, with 65 percent citing "serious" concerns. The second top concern was staff shortages, according to the survey.

"Primarily we have heard that these supply chain disruptions are forcing schools to scramble to find substitute menu items when their orders aren't delivered — they are having to place additional orders at a higher cost, find new local suppliers, even work with local restaurants, or purchase items at Costco or local restaurant depots," Diane Pratt-Heavner, an association spokeswoman, said in an email. "School menus are more streamlined than the typical year, and we can expect substitutions until these supply chain issues are resolved."

However long that may take is anybody's guess.

Laticia Baudhuin, supervisor of school nutrition at the D.C. Everest Area School District near Wausau, Wisconsin, said she's been struggling to obtain certain specialty items, including lactose-free milk and soy milk. Last week she ordered a double-stacked convection oven for a school cafeteria; she was told it won't be delivered until March.

Meanwhile, she and other staff who are normally busy with administrative tasks are working in cafeterias to dish out meals.

"I don't know where all of the people are," Baudhuin said. "We've had some labor issues in the past. Being a lunch lady is really, really hard work, and unfortunately, it doesn't draw a lot of people in."

Her optimism that the school year would get off on a better footing than the previous one has dimmed.

"We can't run as quality a program," she added.

Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating poverty-related hunger, said one upside this year has been that the federal government is offering free meal programs to all students — putting a halt on instances of students being shamed over school lunch debt.

But now, school officials' concerns over their ability to provide hot and healthy meals to children presents yet another challenge to already overwhelmed educators.

"Part of the story of the pandemic is that we are constantly trying to catch up," FitzSimons said. "Things have just not gone back to normal."