Public school students receive free meals. But a supply bottleneck could affect it: NPR

Public school students receive free meals.  But a supply bottleneck could affect it: NPR


For many public school districts, every meal, like this mandarin chicken at Compass Elementary in Kansas City, is now the culmination of some sort of treasure hunt to find food.

Frank Morris / MediaFrolic


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For many public school districts, every meal, like this mandarin chicken at Compass Elementary in Kansas City, is now the culmination of some sort of treasure hunt to find food.

Frank Morris / MediaFrolic

American public school students are likely to eat a lot more meals at school this year.

In the past, school lunches were free for low-income children and some entire districts and available to other children, sometimes at a reduced cost. School districts are responsible for their own programs and are then reimbursed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) primarily for the subsidized meals. This year, because of the pandemic, meals are free for all students and the USDA will theoretically cover the cost, but shortages are affecting the program and costs are rising.

These meals include breakfast and lunch and, in some districts, dinner.

But work problems make this food hard to find and create the worst supply chain problems schools have faced for decades. Procurement is a nightmare. Some school lunch staples, like chicken, can be hard to come by, and your child’s lunch may need to be served on a plastic nacho tray lid. interviewed after nutritionists and MediaFrolic school district officials.

They say work is the biggest problem. Food processing plants don’t always have enough workers to keep production running, haulage companies don’t have all of the drivers they need to move food out of factories, and companies supplying schools cannot fully occupy their warehouses.

School districts are high volume, low profit margin customers, and many of them are now struggling to feed their students.

“It’s like a giant hurricane,” said Grennan Sims, director of food services for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City. “And it keeps coming back to us.”

Sims’ sales companies have chosen to serve more profitable customers than some school districts. Kohl Wholesale, a company that had been using their district for years, began canceling truck loads earlier this school year and cut ties with the district shortly afterwards. Other major distributors have done the same with counties across the country, leaving people like Sims to eat with thousands of students and no clear way to buy all of the groceries they need.

Grennan Sims, director of food services for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, prides itself on the work she and her staff do to cobble together meals for the county’s 5,600 students.

Frank Morris / MediaFrolic


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Grennan Sims, director of food services for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, prides itself on the work she and her staff do to cobble together meals for the county’s 5,600 students.

Frank Morris / MediaFrolic

Every meal cobbled together is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt

“When you think about when the world kind of collapsed in March 2020 and the months after that and the empty shelves that went through, people then see what we see now, but it’s only exponential. “Says Sims.

Now, every meal that Sims and their co-workers create together is the culmination of some sort of treasure hunt for the county’s 5,600 students; a voluntary delivery truck with chickens straight from a processing plant here, a box of donated utensils there, a new supplier who is gradually picking up part of the void, but no certainty. And that happens nationwide.

“We hear 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 counties struggling to feed children shop at Costco, Sam’s Club, or local restaurant supply stores. 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 can’t get the same products that they used. In the Sims School District, for example, she says the price of chicken, which she can regularly source, has more than doubled.

Pratt-Heavner notes that most districts have not fully counted the cost because they are in survival mode.

“It was so quick and furious to reorder replacements that they don’t even pay attention to the price, it’s more about what they can get. They have to have trays or main dish Order whatever fruit or vegetables are needed, “says Pratt-Heavner.

The US Department of Agriculture is helping to offset the additional costs. The USDA reimburses districts for school meals approximately 15% more than the normal rate. It has been announced that an additional $ 1.5 billion in aid will be provided, but not how it will be distributed. In addition, the authority relaxes the regulations.

But Pratt-Heavner says she doesn’t think the extra money from the USDA will cover all of the extra costs the schools will bear.

In the meantime, the USDA has not released exact dollar sums of what it all costs, in part because of the delay in gathering information.

“We absolutely want schools to offer meals that are as nutritious as possible. And we believe they do too, but we also believe that no school should be penalized if the truck doesn’t show up and they don’t have the fruit cup to put up that day, “says Cindy Long, administrator of USDA Food and Drink Nutrition Service.

No relief in sight

In some districts there is fruit, but not the cup or five-compartment tray on which it is served. Lori Drenth, director of food and nutrition services for the Hernando County School District in Florida, says this five-compartment tray was – until recently – the foundation of every meal. Usually the district goes through about 5 million of them annually, but this year Drenth is looking for replacements.

“I mean, seriously, I spend my days searching the internet, what I can offer, what I can offer the students, uh, menus,” says Drenth.

It serves kids food on nacho bowl lids, pizza slice boxes, small deli meat trays, and 9-inch styrofoam plates. She says she’d love to go back to the reusable plastic trays that a lot of people remember from the school canteen, but even if she had the trays, she doesn’t have any extra people to clean them. Because in addition to the shortage of food and single-use serving products, Drenth, like many other school nutritionists, has to struggle with its own serious labor shortage.

“There is only one endless conquest,” complains Drenth. “Whether paper goods or staff or payment or food, it can be exhausting.”

And there is no relief in sight. Drenth and others expect the non-stop chaos of menu cobbling together in an instant to last at least until the end of the school year.



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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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