How schools struggle to serve lunch amid supply chain obstacles

School routines have been turned upside down amid the COVID-19 pandemic and due to recent nationwide supply chain issues, new challenges are emerging for free lunch programs.

From distribution delays and shortages of fresh food to cafeteria supplies like platters and tongs, districts across the United States have had to rework breakfast and lunch options for students.

In Alabama, schools in Alexander City took to social media earlier this month to warn parents on Facebook that due to lack of food deliveries from vendors, their breakfast would be affected in the coming weeks. .

“In the previous weeks, we have not received our food deliveries due to shortage of suppliers, drivers and even warehouse workers,” said Oct. 9, adding that he had opened accounts with outside suppliers to obtain more supplies. “If possible, we ask that you feed your student breakfast before school or try to send a snack.”

Schools in Alexander City also had to modify their menus to accommodate the supplies they were receiving instead and advised parents of the limited menu choices, but confirmed that “at no time did our students been offered or served a meal for lunch or breakfast ”.

“This is a situation that is frustrating for you as a parent, and for us and our ability to feed our students is greatly impacted,” the post said.

Tonya Grier, director of the infant nutrition program for schools in Dothan City, told “GMA” that her district, located nearly three hours from Alexander City, has experienced similar problems.

“Deliveries from our primary distributor continue to be unpredictable; we are not sure of the finish until we see the truck at the back door. There are still several items (food and non-food) that are marked as “out” orders, but the seller is working to find and offer substitutes for items that are scarce from manufacturers, “said Grier to “GMA”. “We are working to secure the products of other distributors, but they too face the same challenges of supply chain disruptions.”

“The shortage of supplies to serve food is particularly troubling. We are used to substituting foods to make a menu; this sometimes happened even before COVID-19. But if we can’t get trays, cups and cutlery to serve food to students, it’s a whole different challenge for us, ”Grier said. “We serve an average of 9,400 meals a day (breakfast and lunch combined), and the sheer volume of food and supplies needed to do this means going to our local grocery stores and warehouse club is not an option. viable for us. “

Dothan Superintendent Dennis Coe told “GMA” that “the uncertainty of food supply” has created “an additional layer of stress and anxiety for staff.”

“This exacerbates our current difficulties in hiring qualified staff,” Coe said of the current problems facing Dothan schools.

School district public relations manager Megan Dorsey added that with students home for fall vacation until Oct. 20, they believe “the stress of food shortages” could be mitigated.

In September, the US Department of Agriculture announced a $ 1.5 billion investment to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions and feed students.

“Throughout the pandemic, school feeding professionals have faced extraordinary challenges in ensuring that every child can get the food they need to learn, grow and thrive,” USDA said in a statement. communicated. “But circumstances in local communities remain unpredictable and food and labor supply chains have been stressed and at times disrupted. These funds will support the purchase of agricultural products and enable the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS ) and USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to enhance the toolkit for hard-working school nutrition professionals to ensure students have reliable access to healthy meals. ”

School Nutrition Association President Beth Wallace hailed the waiver as “a huge relief for the school nutrition professionals who work so hard to serve our students healthy meals in the face of unprecedented challenges.”

Over the past several months, Wallace said his organization has made an effort to “secure food and meal supplies for our students and rework our menus when our orders have been canceled or deliveries have been delayed.”

An SNA survey heading into the 2021 school year found that 97% of school meal program directors nationwide were concerned about continuing supply chain disruptions in the event of a pandemic. Of those affected, SNA said 65% cited it as a “serious” concern.

Problems reported in the investigation included “canceled orders, food and supply shortages, product substitutions, price increases, deliveries delayed and canceled often with little or no notice.”

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit that focuses on education news, has launched a self-submission form for parents, administrators and districts to report similar food program situations regarding supply chain issues.

In Newark, New Jersey’s largest neighborhood, Patrick Wall told “GMA” that the shortages extended beyond food and dining supplies, but to cafeteria workers creating lunch options ” horrible “for children, because it is” difficult to prepare meals from scratch “.

“In response, the district began to outsource some of its meal production. Last month it made a $ 3.9 million ’emergency purchase’ of prepared meals from a vendor.” , did he declare.

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