Classic school lunch staples like boxes of pizza, chicken, and juice are scarce.
And when cafeteria chefs track down a hard-to-find item, they pay more.
Greg Hummel, director of the Derry Township School District cafeteria service, pays a premium for pizza – an additional $ 2,000 over the past two weeks. He also paid over $ 20 more per case of paper dishes.
Behind the scenes, while making sure there is enough food for the four school cafeterias in the district has become an act of juggling, Hummel said they are managing.
However, that could all change.
“We’re in good shape right now, but I know it’s a matter of time … I don’t think things are going to improve anytime soon,” he warned.
Schools across the country are facing shortages of basic commodities such as chicken, fruit and paper cups amid supply chain issues and a lack of truck drivers to deliver these items. This comes at a time when many cafeterias are facing a staff shortage.
School cafeteria managers resort to creative measures, whether it’s stocking up, switching providers, changing last-minute menus, or paying higher-than-normal costs.
In severe cases, schools in some parts of the country are considering a return to distance learning. The Dothan City, Alabama School District has asked parents to send their children to school with packed lunches.
In Philadelphia, a principal of S. Weir Mitchell Elementary School ordered pizzas for 400 students when lunch service was not available.
Jackie McMichael, director of food services for the Susquehanna Township School District, said she was concerned early in the school year when vendors delayed much-needed deliveries. A food distributor has completely stopped school deliveries this year, she said.
“I struggled all year. It was extremely time consuming on my end, ”said McMichael.
Hummel said he encountered a snafu two weeks before school started when the district and members of a cooperative buying group were told by a distributor that food deliveries to the school were in. pause.
After touring the United States Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Hummel said the orders had been received.
“We live in the United States of America. You can’t just say we’re not going to feed the schoolchildren, ”he said.
Hummel said they juggle orders with different vendors.
To stay on top of supplies, McMichael said his district had frozen prices with food distributors and was part of a cooperative buying group. She is constantly updating orders and just to stay one step ahead, she places orders four weeks in advance instead of the usual two weeks.
A freezer the size of a grocery store is chock full of food, she said.
To reflect last minute changes, the menu wording has been adjusted. Susquehanna labels fruits and vegetables as a “manager’s choice” to accommodate fresh fruit, cups of canned fruit, applesauce, or raisins, depending on what is available.
McMichael said they had plenty of canned fruit, but couldn’t find any cups to serve them until she found some through a new seller.
One of the biggest challenges has been buying potato products, she said. Again, the menus are labeled with generic “potatoes” instead of a specific type such as wavy cuts, potato wedges, or smiley fries.
“This way the students know they are getting a potato, but not what kind,” McMichael said.
Menus for the Cumberland Valley School District have also been simplified this year to help minimize last-minute changes, said Tracy Panzer, spokesperson for the district. In a typical year, she said, deliveries are received at least twice a week, but this year, shipments arrive once a week.
“In general, we don’t know until the delivery arrives what products we will receive and what we will not. We are very fortunate to be able to offer several daily options to our students, ”she said.
More recently, she said they were struggling to acquire chicken products, pancakes, juice boxes, water bottles, peanut butter and jelly, and fries.
Panzer said the delays and shortages appear to be caused by supply chain issues, sometimes caused by a shortage of dock loaders or truck drivers, or a delay in manufacturing an ingredient or product. specific product.
This summer, the Pennsylvania Departments of Education and Agriculture wrote a letter to schools across the state warning of the food supply and price hiccups. The letter recommended that districts prepare for budget increases due to higher food and distribution costs.
The state provides guidance to districts regarding emergency purchase amounts for commodities and the process for claiming a waiver if commodities are not available. In some cases, districts are given foods that do not meet federal nutritional guidelines.
McMichael said he recently served Stouffers Mac and Cheese instead of a whole grain variety. In Derry Township, Hummel said he received tater tots instead of the federally mandated low sodium version.
Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture has given schools more leeway to meet federal nutritional guidelines for federally subsidized meals. He issued a waiver preventing schools from being penalized financially if they fail to meet guidelines due to supply chain issues.
In September, the ministry also provided $ 1.5 billion in assistance to schools in light of supply chain disruptions.
“We know that districts are doing everything they can to put healthy and nutritious food on children’s plates,” Stacy Dean, assistant deputy secretary of the food, nutrition and human services department, told The New York Times. to consumers. “We want to support this effort and reassure them that no one will be in trouble because of an unexpected difficulty.”
Ultimately, McMichael said everyone was working towards one goal.
“I think the important part is just feeding the kids,” she said. “Price wise, I wouldn’t necessarily have a more expensive item just to serve it.”
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