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Inside one Georgia school district’s battle to serve healthy, homemade food despite shortages and soaring prices

Burke County school kids are getting back to normal-ish, but new crises threaten their school meals

Donna Martin, nutrition director for the Burke County school district, talks about serving smoothies to students at Burke County Middle School in Waynesboro, Ga. Martin views the school meal program as an anchor for students in their often chaotic lives. (Sean Rayford for The Washington Post)

WAYNESBORO, Ga. — On a recent Thursday morning at sunrise, Donna Martin drove down Route 25 and started her daily hunt for food.

Martin, Burke County’s school nutrition director, had meetings stacked back-to-back. First Leo Charette, who sells produce to school districts and restaurants. He had a long list of things he cannot get her. No sliced apples. Other fruits and veggies are stranded, shriveling in containers at a California port, he said. One of his drivers had just relocated to Louisiana, so now Charette was even more shorthanded.

Then Martin met with Craig McCrary and Danny Johnston from Williams Institutional Foods. McCrary said supplies transported by ship may have three price hikes between the time the ship departs one port and arrives in another. Contracts are null, everyone citing covid-19 as a “force majeure,” which means something like war or natural disaster or a pandemic.

Many of the economic forces washing across the U.S. economy, some of which are caused by a broken supply chain, are more acute in Burke County, where poverty is high and hunger is real. Four of Burke County’s five schools are clustered in a tight complex, the fifth a tiny rural elementary to accommodate the folks who do not want to make a long drive into town. This creates all sorts of problems for Martin. She is far from the economic power centers in Washington and Wall Street, but the economic challenges posed by inflation, shipping and labor shortages have dealt Burke County a particularly painful blow.

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While much has been made of how restaurants cannot find workers, and prices for beef, fish and eggs have skyrocketed, a restaurant owner can cope by charging more, limiting the menu, even cutting service on some days.

But those options are not available for Martin, who is required by the federal government to serve breakfasts and lunches at precise times. Those meals must comply with nutritional standards to the 4,300 children in the county’s school district. She cannot charge a dime more, and if she fails to please the customers, she loses them to Lunchables, bags of chips and fistfuls of Halloween candy from home. Then her reimbursement is cut.

Doing so often requires Martin, 68, to navigate a complicated set of supply chain logistics, knowing that if she fails, some of the children in Burke County public schools may not eat.

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It has been shown that American kids’ best chance at good nutrition is at school. Right now, school nutrition directors are battling a lack of cafeteria workers, supply trucks arriving half full and equipment upgrades that do not show up.

Schools around the country are serving things like leftover breakfast French toast sticks at lunch to make up for shortfalls; they are outsourcing operations to food service management companies that truck in prefab processed foods. Schools are even turning to fast-food delivery in a pinch.

The issues are more severe in Burke County, where the poverty rate for children is three times the national average, according to U.S. census data. There is also a high school dropout rate of more than 18 percent, which is also more than three times the national average. Teen pregnancy is almost 50 percent higher than the national average, according to a Georgia adolescent health organization.

Martin sees the school meal program as an anchor for students, something reliable in a chaotic world. Maybe some of them stay in school a little bit longer, graduate in part because of what she does. In every school, some kids fall through the cracks, but school nutrition touches everyone.

She has been “scratch cooking” in Burke County for 30 years. That means she tries to avoid prefab, prepackaged meals from the big distributors, tries not to lean too heavily on frozen fries and nuggets. Those give students calories, but not nutrition, she believes.

“I am not going to call Domino’s to feed my kids,” Martin said. She has the Southern woman’s mix of genteel and steely that Hollywood movies never get quite right.

Last year things got hard. She had to move mountains to get kids fed.

James “Chick” Jones would drive a school bus through his regular rural route along the 836 miles of Burke County, handing out hefty cardboard food boxes filled with five days worth of breakfasts, lunches and snacks to students who streamed their lessons out of houses. They greeted him with grins.

“We would go out into the low-income neighborhoods and knock on doors. A lot of parents thanked us; this gave them food for the day,” said Jones, a school bus driver who is also Waynesboro’s vice mayor. “So many kids had to fend for themselves, and this put a balanced meal in their hands.”

For many of the county’s students, like Jada Curd, it was the only certain thing in uncertain times.

“It was fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and cereal,” remembered Jada, who was at home learning remotely with her two younger siblings and grandmother. There were more unfamiliar things, too — dragon fruit and jicama, kiwi and cauliflower. For her family, which lives off her grandmother’s Social Security checks, weekly boxes of food from the school district were crucial, something exciting, but also gave them peace of mind.

Now those buses are back to hauling students, and Jada and the rest of the kids are back to the cafeterias. The pandemic is not over, but things are getting back to normal, or normal-ish. But for Martin and her team, it is even harder.

The costs of ingredients and supplies are up 20 percent, and student meal participation is down 20 percent. Participation diminishes when students get sent home to quarantine and because bus driver shortages have curtailed some after-school programs, which often serve supper. But much of the drop-off is because students are skeptical about the advertised menu. They have reason to be. These days, three out of five lunches are not what her staff originally planned, Martin said.

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One day, it is sausage dogs on the high school menu, which usually come packed 80-per-case. The vendor substituted a different brand at 40-per-case. The kitchen manager did not know they were packed differently and ran out of them. Then she ran out of pizza. Only cold sandwiches were left, and students were peeved. Another day, it was a district favorite, Congo Chicken, a sweet and tangy dish kicked up with curry powder. Their usual chickens were large enough to give each student one leg, but Martin’s biggest food distributor, US Foods, pulled out of the Burke County school contract this year and there is a new vendor. Tiny chicken legs meant two per person to fulfill the protein requirement. The schools ran out, scrambling to heat up emergency pizza and whip up more cold-cut sandwiches.

Burke County is dense with acres of peanuts and soy, cotton and cattle. But there are also vegetables, and Martin buys fresh black-eyed peas, butter beans and collard greens from local farmers.

Martin has a stash of apple sauce, a hedge for when she cannot get vegetables. But she knows it is not as healthy. The school district’s fresh fruits and vegetables may be the only ones some students encounter all day, according to Schylea Williams, a kindergarten teacher who has her own first-grader and sixth-grader enrolled in district schools. She said many kindergartners came in this year behind: socially, academically and in the cafeteria, too.

“They needed to learn to use a fork, how to open a milk, just basic table manners,” Williams said. “At home, a lot of them eat prepackaged quick foods, Pop-Tarts and chicken nuggets, with parents doing what they have to do to get through the day.”

She said Martin works hard to provide healthy food for students. With childhood obesity levels skyrocketing, it is an opportunity to teach about nutrition, to develop good habits, to nurture. But the endeavor has gotten shakier with the current shortages and supply problems.

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Burke County High School students eat at one of four lunch periods and by the final lunch, popular and hot items are gone, said Alquita Dent, a health care teacher at the high school and mother of four students enrolled in the district. Her youngest daughter, Kori, is in first grade and a picky eater. Her class eats in their classroom most days to maintain social distance.

Does she like the food? “No,” Kori said quickly, softening that by adding that she does indeed like the school meatloaf and salads.

But she cannot eat meatloaf without a fork, and salads are a lot less appealing when there never seems to be any salad dressing packets. Martin’s team makes its own ranch dressing these days but cannot get the plastic ramekins to put it in.

On that day of Martin’s back-to-back meetings, Justino Taveras, the day’s driver for PET Dairy, wheeled in the crates of milk — 1,200 eight-ounce cartons for breakfast and lunch, another 500 for supper. He used to deliver Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But the vendor in Spartanburg, S.C., is suffering from a driver shortage, prompting a change to Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, a shift that immediately snarled the district’s available refrigerator space.

Sometimes there is no milk. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, a school cannot be reimbursed for a meal without it. Occasionally, Martin has driven 60 miles round trip to retrieve all those tiny cartons of white, skim, chocolate, vanilla and Lactaid herself.

Students may not know that Martin has been to four Walmarts to round up the yogurt for breakfast smoothies, or that she drove 75 miles recently to pick up sugar she cannot get now from her regular distributors. But they all recognize her zipping around the schools, and most appreciate the effort she goes to to make healthy meals, meals that, according to Jada, are “well cooked and well thought out.”

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Jada got through last year learning to grow houseplants and scaring herself silly with fat Stephen King novels. She says the limbo year is kind of a blur now. She is back in high gear, making up for lost time.

Her résumé is three pages, single spaced. She’s 16. On an average day, she starts at Augusta Technical College early for advanced algebra and economics classes, then hops over to Burke County High School for her internship with the school district’s public information officer. After classes there is weight training for varsity volleyball, a swing by the drama room for play rehearsal, and then volleyball practice. The activities bus brings her home by 7 p.m. Like many students in Burke County, she can, and often does, eat all her meals at school.

She is a kid who already has her eye on a University of Georgia “Double Dawg” dual degree in communications and political science. In October, she won the county’s scholar athlete award. In June, she won first place for a speech about the importance of overcoming fear at the National Beta Club convention.

“Train yourself to embrace your fears,” she said in her speech. “Embrace the possibilities that come with the unknown.”