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The cold truth about hot lunch: School meal programs are running out of food and workers

Last year, American school districts pivoted to accommodate pandemic challenges. The USDA is leaping in with a new round of funding to help schools

With the school year in full swing, product shortfalls, delivery delays and labor shortages have pushed the nation’s public school meal programs to a crisis point. (Savannah Tryens-Fernandes/AP)

Square pizza and chicken tenders suddenly get swapped for meatloaf and zucchini coins. American schoolchildren and lunch ladies grimace. And now the federal government is stepping in to help.

School districts in Kansas can’t get whole-wheat flour, ranch dressing or Crispitos rolled tacos right now. In Dallas, they can’t put their hands on flatware, plates and napkins. In New York, school districts are unable to find antibiotic-free chicken, condiments or carrots.

With the school year in full swing, product shortfalls, delivery delays and labor shortages have pushed the nation’s public school meal programs to a crisis point. The same economic forces are plaguing other industries, but the stakes are higher: Many low-income American children get the majority of their nutrition from school meals.

The crisis has drawn the attention of the U.S. Agriculture Department, with Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing $1.5 billion in funding Wednesday to help beleaguered school meal programs cope with food shortages. School cafeteria workers everywhere rejoice. However, experts are unsure whether this is sufficient to resolve the problems.

“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,” Vilsack said in a statement. “We are committed to the program’s success, and confident in its ability to serve children well.”

The USDA has yet to detail how or when exactly the $1.5 billion will be doled out.

While the funding can address the increased cost of food and supplies as well as bump up salaries to woo more lunch program workers, advocates said the money could fall short when it comes to resolving supply chain snarls, depending on how long those persist. If contracts have already been canceled and food diverted elsewhere, there still may be holes.

“It will take some time to purchase the food through USDA, but they know how urgent this is,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit created by school-food-service professionals.

The new round of funding aims to help buoy school lunch programs facing unprecedented challenges. Food companies have begun to exit the school meals business, and others are discontinuing the production of some products. Major distributors have canceled school food contracts with little to no notice, Wilson said. And if food-delivery trucks show up, there’s no telling what’s on them.

Parents and students are coming to expect last-minute changes to menus, as well as menus that are frequently more “streamlined” (read: fewer choices) and contain less scratch cooking and more substitutions that fall outside of nutritional recommendations. That’s the best-case scenario. Worst case, an absence of paper products, canned veggies and poultry limits what schools can offer altogether until supply chain problems are resolved.

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The School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school-food-service manufacturers and professionals, polled its members in a back-to-school survey and found that 97 percent are concerned about continued pandemic supply chain disruptions. The next top concern was staff shortages, from dishwashers to cooks, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the association.

Supply chain backlogs plague the entire system. And the most common problems, she said, are discontinued menu items, shortages, longer than normal lead times, significantly higher costs compared with pre-pandemic bids, delayed deliveries or deliveries that contain a tiny fraction of what was ordered.

Schools are scrambling to find new vendors and are at the mercy of higher prices, while lacking the option of a more formal bid process, said Wilson, with the Urban School Food Alliance. Many food manufacturers stopped making products specifically for school cafeterias when in-person school closed down in spring 2020 and have been slow to resume. Many vendors determined that schools were their least profitable customers and have canceled contracts. And the vendors that still service them have incurred higher costs themselves, which they pass along.

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“We are seeing up to 48 percent cost increases on single products. And we have districts that have to serve only handheld foods [think sandwiches and burgers] two to three days a week due to the inability to obtain disposable cutlery,” Wilson said.

In Kansas, schools were informed that Tyson Foods will not honor its contract pricing negotiated last year for this year’s chicken products. There will be a price increase, said Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness at the Kansas State Department of Education. She said two of the country’s biggest distributors, US Foods and Sysco, pulled out of contracts negotiated last year in most school districts in the state. So those districts were left scrambling.

“In a limited number of instances, we did make the difficult decision to exit some school partnerships in full compliance with our contractual terms,” said Sara Matheu, director of external communications for US Foods.

Sysco officials also said that industry-wide labor shortages have meant they have had to delay or pause service to some customers, including schools: “We are aggressively recruiting delivery drivers and warehouse associates, and our goal is to restore service to our impacted customers as soon as possible," said Shannon Mutschler, Sysco’s senior director of external communications.

Asked about the higher Tyson chicken pricing, company spokesman Derek Burleson said, “We remain committed to providing schools with healthy and nutritious food and are working diligently to address the demand and supply challenges the industry is facing to make sure students are fed.”

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National labor shortages affect school districts in a number of ways, Wilson said. She said she’s heard that for every 20 trucks waiting to depart food distributor warehouses, they have one driver, so one truck goes out. And districts are woefully short of food-service workers, in many places 20 to 25 percent of jobs standing vacant.

“We aren’t even having people apply for jobs,” said Johnson, with the Kansas state school lunch program. “So we don’t have enough staff to wash trays, so there’s a dependence on paper products, which are in short supply.”

Linette Dodson, state director of school nutrition for the Georgia Department of Education, said many school districts are offering $1,000 signing bonuses to encourage people to apply.

But schools have additional constraints that make hiring difficult.

“Everyone is trying to hire the same workers,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. But school meal programs are more constrained than other employers because extensive background checks are required and the school districts cap the salary that can be offered, she said.

She said this lack of workers has limited many school districts’ ability to offer things like after-school meals, programs that food-insecure families often depend upon.

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And because of all the uncertainty about when deliveries might come and what they might contain, many schools are increasing their order sizes to ensure they get in something, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance for the School Superintendents Association. So they need more refrigerated storage capacity for food and milk, which adds more expenses for schools.

Burke County Public Schools, a large rural community in Georgia, has one more week’s worth of bowls and five-compartment foam trays (the ones that protect the tater tots from lava flows of gravy). And then they don’t know what they’ll do. School Nutrition Director Donna Martin has had to be creative. She’s down to one vendor, so “if they don’t have chicken nuggets, we don’t get chicken nuggets. I’ve had to go to Sam’s Club or Walmart to buy food.”

She said that all the last-minute menu changes leave students unable to anticipate what they’ll be served for lunch. If they look forward to Pizza Friday but get spaghetti instead? Well, they’re sad, parents are disgruntled, and the school loses business to Lunchables and other food brought from home, Martin said.

“We’re losing participation because the kids can’t count on getting what they’re hoping to get,” she said. “We thought it couldn’t get worse. But we see it crashing and burning all around us.”

The new funding comes from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a government program started during the Great Depression. It’s not clear when the funding will start flowing to schools.

“Today’s announcement is a first step," said Kate Waters, USDA press secretary. "The funding will go to the agencies who will move forward with establishing procedures for the disbursement of the funds.”

Yet the school-lunch-program crisis comes at a time when more families are utilizing free school meals, thanks to the agency recently extending key pandemic waivers through the 2022 school year that include the option for schools to offer free meals to all students.

The U.S. Agriculture Department had already announced earlier this month that it won’t punish schools for not meeting nutrition standards under these pandemic circumstances.