The supply chain crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is now beginning to affect school meals. Nutrition administrators at schools are scrambling to secure supplies so as to put healthy meals on the table for their students.
At Enterprise City Schools in Alabama, staff members are struggling with inconsistent delivery of food as well as related supplies like utensils and trays. In an interview with NBC News, Stephanie Dillard, child nutrition director at Enterprise City Schools, said that they are experiencing “a lot of” shortages and outages.
“Every week everybody is holding their breath, not knowing whether we’re going to get a truck or not because we don’t know if there’s going to be truck drivers or there’s going to be employees in the distributors’ warehouses,” Dillard said.
In some places, food deliveries have become extremely unpredictable. One satellite kitchen in the Huron Valley school district that serves elementary schools received just 35 out of the 400 cases of food they had ordered. Another day, the kitchen got 700 cases all at once.
According to Lieling Hwang, assistant director of nutrition services for the Long Beach Unified school district in California, the supply disruption has forced schools to cut back on certain items. For instance, whole wheat croissants that were used for making breakfast sandwiches are no longer being offered.
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“Deliveries of goods and foods are extremely delayed. It now takes an average of eight weeks to receive an item that previously showed up in two to three weeks… Typically, these deliveries are coming in short, as well,” Hwang told The Guardian.
In Martin County, cafeteria staff are finding it difficult to secure supplies of dinner rolls, cafeteria trays, and maple syrup packets. In Okeechobee, bread, beef, and chicken are in short supply. “We got a little wake-up call from our distributor, who said that our supply chain is going to get dicey,” Lisa Bell, Food Service Supervisor for Okeechobee County, told CBS12.
Between Sept. 2018 and May 2019, American schools served an average of around 500 million lunches per month. The pandemic has reduced this number, during the current school year, seeing only 330 million lunches per month. Schools are finding it difficult to ensure a steady supply of proper meals.
A poll conducted by the School Nutrition Association found that 97 percent of its members are concerned that the pandemic will continue disrupting the supply chain. The group represents manufacturers and professionals in the school food services industry.
Another main concern for the members is finding enough workers. Some food companies have stopped supplying to schools while a few distributors have suspended their contracts without providing any notice.
The crisis facing school meal programs has garnered the attention of the U.S. Agriculture Department. “USDA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting the school meal programs, taking action to help schools get out in front of possible challenges and addressing other issues that arise from all angles and with all available resources… We are committed to the program’s success, and confident in its ability to serve children well,” department Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
In late September, the department announced $1.5 billion in additional funds to help school meal programs deal with food shortages. Meal service waivers that allow schools to offer free meals to students have been extended through June 2022.