Food Supply Problems Create Menu Problems For Schools In Greater Columbus

No pancakes or cereals. And a shortage of pizza, chicken, burgers and corn dogs.

What should the students – or the school cafeteria workers who try to feed them do?

Supply chain shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are leaving school cafeterias locally and across the country running out of all kinds of food, utensils and even meal trays.

“This is a secondary impact to the pandemic,” said Kari Dennis, director of food services and human resources for schools in the city of Westerville. “There was just a lot of hope with the sabbatical summer that we would see a rebound in production.”

But that didn’t happen, Dennis said.

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Nationwide, food deliveries to schools have been late or canceled altogether, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the Virginia-based nonprofit School Nutrition Association (SNA). Sometimes the trucks arrive on time, but only with half the amount of food and supplies promised.

“It left schools scrambling and doing a lot more work to make sure children continue to receive these healthy meals,” she said.

The workforce shortages that started with the COVID pandemic are also playing a role in supply chain issues as Westerville schools, like many districts, struggle to fill vacant staff positions. food.

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Supply chain bottlenecks – in the United States and around the world – have caused record shortages of many products that American consumers are accustomed to having easy access to, including food and canteen supplies. school.

When distributors don’t pass, some districts have had to resort to restaurants, grocery stores or retail outlets such as Sam’s Club or Costco, Pratt-Heavner said.

This has happened once so far this school year in Westerville, which prepares just over 8,000 lunches a day – a 25% increase over the average meals prepared in a school year, Dennis said.

“We were supposed to be given lettuce to make salads and it didn’t come in, so we had to go to our local grocery stores and clear the lettuce shelves so we could make the salad,” Dennis said.

Amid a supply chain slowdown, schools are also serving more meals than before the pandemic, in part due to a federal mandate that public schools provide free breakfast and lunch to all students because of the pandemic.

The district also struggled to find breakfast items such as French toast sticks, pancakes, and cookies, as well as plastic utensils for students and trays of food, among other items, forcing Dennis to find similar items to replace.

“We can’t get anything that contains a stick (like corn dogs), so we just need to quickly find replacements for student favorite items,” she said.

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And for some students, the meals they get at school are the only meals they’ll eat all day, Pratt-Heavner said.

“A hungry student cannot learn,” Dennis said. “They’re just distracted by hunger in general, so it’s important to eat a nutritious and balanced breakfast and lunch.”

Additional meals required creating greater demand for food and utensils by school districts

Last year, the federal government demanded that public schools provide free breakfast and lunch to all students due to the pandemic, a measure that continued into the current school year through from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Meals should follow the dietary guidelines for Americans, which include a balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains, and lean protein with each meal. according to SNA.

Any replacement food must also fall under these dietary guidelines, which makes it harder than you might think, said Bethany Lenko, chief of food service at Olentangy.

“We’re not like a restaurant where we can necessarily change our menu,” she said.

Olentangy has experienced “food cuts galore”of their distributors, she said. Neighborhood uses Gordon Food Service and Sysco in Cleveland; Rightway Food Services in Lima; and Joshen Paper & Packaging near Cleveland.

“From all the conversations I’ve had with manufacturers and distributors, it will only get worse before it gets better,” said Lenko. “When COVID-19 started, I never thought it would have been an implication in 18 months.”

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Every day, Olentangy prepares between 13,000 and 14,000 lunches and between 3,000 and 4,000 breakfasts, an increase of about 40% from last school year, Lenko said.

South-Western City Schools had to order paper products, cutlery kits and gloves for the cooks from Amazon. Before COVID, the neighborhood served just over 13,000 lunches and 7,000 breakfasts per day. These numbers have increased this school year due to the federal extension of free meals.

“It’s really stressful,” said Lisa Hamrick, food services supervisor for South-Western. “We are doing our best with what we have.”

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. Press release.

“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. ”

Megan Henry is the Columbus Dispatch K-12 education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] or (614) 559-1758.Follow her on Twitter @megankhenry.

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