Students in public schools receive free meals. But a shortage of supplies could affect this: NPR
Frank Morris / NPR
Students in US public schools are probably eating a lot more school meals this year.
School food was free for low-income children and some entire districts in the past, and it was available for purchase for other children, sometimes at a reduced cost. School districts are responsible for their own programs and are then reimbursed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), primarily for subsidized meals. This year, due to the pandemic, meals are free for all students, and USDA is theoretically covering the costs. But shortages cripple the program and costs rise.
These meals include breakfast and lunch, and in some areas, dinner.
But workforce issues make that livelihood hard to come by, triggering the worst supply chain problems schools have faced in decades. Supply is a nightmare. Some school catering staples, like chicken, can be hard to find, and your child’s lunch may need to be served on a plastic nacho tray lid, according to nutritionists and school district officials interviewed by NPR.
They say the work is the biggest problem. Food processing factories don’t always have enough workers to keep production buzzing, trucking companies don’t have all the drivers they need to haul food from factories, and companies that supply schools can’t. not fully stock their warehouses.
School districts are high volume, low margin customers and many of them are now scrambling to feed their students.
“It’s like a huge hurricane,” said Grennan Sims, director of nutrition services for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City. “And it keeps coming to us.”
The Sims distribution companies choose to serve more profitable customers rather than certain school districts. The company his district had used for years, Kohl Wholesale, began canceling truck deliveries at the start of this school year and cut ties with the district completely soon after. Other large distributors have done the same in districts across the country, leaving people like The Sims with thousands of students to feed and no clear way to buy all the groceries they need.
Frank Morris / NPR
Each meal concocted is the culmination of a sort of treasure hunt
“If you think about when the world sort of closed in March 2020, and the months that followed, and the empty shelves that were experienced, what people saw then is what we see now, but it’s just exponential, ”Sims says.
Now, every meal the Sims and their team cook together is the culmination of some sort of scavenger hunt for them. the 5,600 students in the neighborhood; a chicken volunteer van straight out of a processing plant here, a box of donated utensils there, a new supplier gradually taking over, but no certainty. And it is happening all over the country.
“We’re hearing from schools across the country that just aren’t getting the food and supplies they ordered,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, of the School Nutrition Association.
Pratt-Heavner says some districts that scramble to feed children shop at Costco, Sam’s Club, or regional restaurant supply depots. And she says they pay more. Not necessarily more for identical items, but more money to fill in the gaps they need to complete their menu. They cannot get the same products that they were using. For example, in the Sims School District, she says the price of the chicken she can afford on a regular basis has more than doubled.
Pratt-Heavner notes that most districts haven’t fully calculated the costs, as they’re sort of in survival mode.
“It’s been so quick and furious trying to rearrange substitute items that they don’t even look at the price, it’s more about what they can get. They must have platters or main courses. or fruit or veg – they’ll order whatever it takes, ”says Pratt-Heavner.
United States Ministry of Agriculture helps absorb additional costs. The USDA reimburses districts for school meals at about 15% more than the normal price. It is announced that another $ 1.5 billion in aid is coming, but has not specified how this will be distributed. The agency is also relaxing the regulations.
But Pratt-Heavner says she doesn’t think the extra USDA money covers all of the extra costs schools incur.
Meanwhile, the USDA hasn’t released dollar totals for exactly what it all costs, in part because of the lag in information gathering.
“We absolutely want schools to serve the most nutritious meals possible. And we think they want that too, but we also believe that no school should be penalized if the truck doesn’t show up and they don’t. isn’t the fruit bowl to put on that day, ”says Cindy Long, administrator of food and nutrition services for the USDA.
There’s no relief in sight
Some wedges may have fruit, but not the cup or five-compartment tray on which to serve it. Lori Drenth, director of food and nutrition services for the Hernando County School District in Florida, said the five-compartment tray was – until recently – the staple of every meal. Normally the district processes around 5 million a year, but this year Drenth is scrambling to find replacements.
“I mean, seriously, I spend my days searching the internet for what I can put on, what I can serve, uh, menu items to students,” Drenth says.
Serving food on lids of nacho bowls, boxes of pizza slices, small deli platters and 9-inch styrofoam plates, she gets by. She says she would love to go back to the reusable plastic trays that many people remember from the school cafeteria. But even though she had the trays, she doesn’t have additional people to clean them because in addition to the scarcity of disposable food and serving items, Drenth, like many other school nutritionists, is facing a challenge herself. severe labor shortage.
“There is just endless passing,” laments Drenth. “Whether it’s, you know, paper or staff, or payroll or food, it can be exhausting.”
And there is no relief in sight. Drenth and others expect the endless chaos of tinkering with on-the-fly menus to continue at least until the end of the school year.