Supply Chain Issues Are Disrupting School Lunches

Key Takeaways

  • Supply chain disruptions have made it difficult for schools to get food items and supplies needed to serve lunches to students.
  • Labor shortages have also hampered schools’ efforts, both internally and with vendors and suppliers.
  • School nutrition workers are going the extra mile to ensure that each student receives the best meal they can provide, given what’s available.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives in many ways. Most recently, the pandemic has impacted global supply chains. This has led to empty grocery store shelves, help wanted signs, and closed restaurant dining rooms—all casualties of the supply chain and labor shortages.

Supply chain issues have been happening since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, with toilet paper and cleaning products. The list of items in limited supply has continued to grow since that time, including everything from food items to household goods. Now, school lunch programs are facing the same product shortages.

Some food items come in smaller quantities, if at all. Supplies, like disposable forks, spoons, and more, are lacking availability. This all has made it a challenge to provide lunches to students, leaving school staff nationwide scrambling when the lunch bell rings. The supply chain disruptions are turning what was supposed to be a year of transition to normalcy into anything but normal. We take a look at how the supply chain disruptions are impacting school lunches, programs set up to help schools deal with the shortages, and what practical steps parents can take to help deal with the issue.

What Is Happening in Lunchrooms

Kristin Hilleman, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Capistrano Unified School District in California, oversees meal programs for 58 schools in the largest district in Orange County. Even before the academic year began, supplier issues erupted.

“In mid-August, the day before school started, we did not receive our fresh bread deliveries at our 20 middle and high school kitchens,” she says. “Our kitchen leads had to go to the store to purchase enough buns and hoagie rolls to get them through at least one day.”

Staffers continued to purchase bread from the grocery store for the first two weeks of school, before finding another vendor who could meet their demand. Getting bread wasn’t the only problem.

Kristin Hilleman

We are very particular with the food we procure for our students. Now we are having to take whatever is available to ensure we have food available for students.

— Kristin Hilleman

“We have experienced food shortages spanning from yogurt and milk to baby carrots and beef patties,” notes Hilleman. “Every week we are having to adjust our menus to offset an item or two or three we are short.”

With 43,000 students in the district, adjustments are no easy task. “We are very particular with the food we procure for our students,” Hilleman adds. “Now we are having to take whatever is available to ensure we have food available for students.”

That food crunch is further complicated by the need for allergen-friendly items for some students. Gluten-free bun and soymilk shortages can send workers scurrying to find safe alternatives for students. And even when some food items are available, scarcity seems to have driven some costs up substantially.

A survey by the School Nutrition Association notes that 97% of school nutrition directors listed pandemic supply chain issues as their top concern. The Association includes members that work in school meal programs, from cashiers on the front line to district representatives who plan menus. In the same survey, 90% of respondents expressed concerns about labor.

“Schools are also struggling to find enough staff in the school nutrition department, but also in busing and some of the other support services,” explains Diane Pratt-Heavner, the spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. “So that has been a challenge that has further complicated the problem.” Vendors and food suppliers also struggle with finding workers to pack items, or load and drive trucks.

Even if there is enough food to get to the schools, and people to fill positions, there may not be enough serving trays, containers, or utensils for kids to receive the meals. It’s a multi-layer problem seeking a multi-layer solution.

Doing What Needs to be Done

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken center stage in solving the problem on a federal level. Earlier this year, the organization extended its program giving free lunch waivers to all students through the 2021-2022 school year. This is traditionally a program that supplies meals to lower-income children. This year, however, it acknowledged the need for food to be available for every child. For some students, the meal at school may be the most nutritious meal they have all day.

The move was a sign of hope to help in the journey to normalcy for the current school year. But supply chain shortages prevail.

Consequently, last month the USDA unfurled a new set of initiatives in response to supply chain problems. These guidelines allow for an easing of restrictions if schools aren’t able to abide by some federal requirements, including providing certain foods that aren’t available.

“There are targeted, specific waivers on meal pattern requirements and nutrition standards for school meals, basically acknowledging that if the school can’t get whole grain bread in the door on a given day, they aren’t going to be penalized for serving white bread,” Pratt-Heavner explains. “But schools are doing everything they can to make sure the meals they serve meet all of the nutrition standards,” she continues, noting that providing healthy, wholesome lunches is the goal.

The initiatives also provide over one-billion dollars in relief funds to counter additional costs schools are incurring.

At the ground level, the school nutrition staffs have worked diligently since last year’s school closures to keep children fed. Their dedication has not waivered, with workers making grocery store runs, cooking food in the kitchens, or simply getting creative with meal substitutions. “The school nutrition staff are really passionate about their job. They’re in it because they know how important these meals are to student health, well-being, and academic success,” Pratt-Heavner adds.

Elizabeth Campbell, MA, RD

We’re looking at this more globally. If we don’t invest and strengthen this program so that it won’t ever be this vulnerable again, and so that we can recover, we are putting ourselves in a position to lose what is probably one of the country’s best assets in establishing healthy food habits for children.

— Elizabeth Campbell, MA, RD

Staff and administrators want to shore up school food service programs, both now and in the future. “We’re looking at this more globally,” says Elizabeth Campbell, MA, RD, the senior director of Legislative and Government Affairs at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If we don’t invest and strengthen this program so that it won’t ever be this vulnerable again, and so that we can recover, we are putting ourselves in a position to lose what is probably one of the country’s best assets in establishing healthy food habits for children.”

Experts note that flexibility is required for everyone involved to continue to move in a positive direction. Both parents and students can exercise patience when what’s served in the cafeteria is different than what was listed on the weekly menu. Sending in disposable utensils for students to use can also be a huge help to school officials. Parents can even use the opportunity to educate their children, talking to them about the pandemic, the disruptions, and how to appreciate the efforts of the nutrition staff.

“I just don’t think this school year is ever going to feel like the normal transition school year that had all anticipated,” Campbell concludes.

What This Means For You

Just like you’ve had issues getting items at the grocery store, schools are having issues getting food and supplies for your child’s lunch. It can seem inconvenient to have changes to your child’s menu on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. But thanks to the efforts of nutrition staff and cafeteria workers, your student will still have access to healthy, wholesome school lunch options, despite the COVID-19 pandemic supply chain disruptions.

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