Supply chain shortages are putting a strain on Virginia school lunch rooms

Unpredictable deliveries and understaffing in the kitchen have been another challenge for school divisions amid the ongoing pandemic

By: - January 18, 2022 12:23 am

(NBC12)

Between rising case counts and staffing shortages, Virginia’s public schools were already facing plenty of challenges at the start of the fall semester. Then came supply chain problems.

“I think I was in the middle of a meeting when we found out there was no bread to be had from our distributor,” said Randy Herman, the director of nutrition services for Louisa County Public Schools. “I just wasn’t getting anything on the truck.” In Chesapeake, the same thing happened with chicken patties. Harrisonburg and Bristol have faced shortages of frozen pizza. Across Virginia, almost no school district has escaped the current unpredictability of the food supply chain.

“Once the deliveries started coming in, all of a sudden it became apparent that there was not enough products or the right products available,” said Sandy Curwood, director of the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition Programs. “And since then, industries have just been scrambling to meet those needs.”

Virginia isn’t the only state facing supply chain shortages, which have been hitting local school divisions for months. But amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they’re a particular burden. Since schools closed in March of 2020, districts have at least doubled their meal production, delivering not only lunches but often supper and snacks to students and their families. Many are feeding both in-school classes and students whose parents chose to enroll them virtually. And thanks to federal waivers, most schools are now providing all their meals at no cost, which has boosted uptake in breakfast and lunch programs as students return to the classroom.

Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Supply shortages, though, have left districts scrambling to feed students without compromising nutrition or taste. While bottlenecks in shipping and manufacturing have affected everything from grocery store shelves to major technology companies, Curwood said the issue is particularly complex for schools. Vendors typically see low margins with their K-12 contracts, and some have unexpectedly terminated their agreements with local divisions. The state’s education department has asked federal officials to look into the practice, but there are additional challenges when it comes to sourcing items for schools.

“Everything in school food is whole grain,” said Kathy Hicks, the nutrition director for Bristol Public Schools. As a result of those federal dietary regulations, many manufacturers produce products specifically for local school divisions — chicken nuggets with whole grain breading, for instance, instead of the refined wheat versions that might be available in grocery stores and restaurants. 

“But the manufacturers are having the same issue as everyone else,” she said. “So they’ve reduced what they’re producing for schools. If there’s a choice and they can only make one chicken nugget, they’re going to make the one they can sell to Walmart instead of the one they sell to us.”

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The ongoing challenges have led to widespread shortages of easily transportable items like cereal and breakfast bars as well as disposable products including trays, plates, napkins and utensils. Andrea Early, the nutrition director for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said it’s been nearly impossible to find disposable cups for the district’s popular yogurt breakfast buffets. Curwood said she heard of one Virginia school district that received an order of chopsticks when its distributor was short on forks. Meanwhile, schools have grown increasingly reliant on those items amid the ongoing pandemic, which led many districts to shift meals into classrooms to keep students distanced.

“It’s a real concern that we can’t find a five-ounce cup to use for the distribution of our meals,” said Larry Wade, the nutrition director for Chesapeake Public Schools. “We operate like a restaurant — we are probably the biggest restaurant chain in the city of Chesapeake. And we’re finding that like other big businesses, we’re having to make a lot of adjustments based on the marketplace.”

That’s required creativity and round-the-clock work on the part of nutrition service teams. When Herman realized her supplier wasn’t offering hamburger buns, she was faced with the prospect of serving patties on slices of white bread. Instead, she teamed up with the district’s Culinary Arts program. For part of the fall, student bakers supplied the division with around 1,500 buns every week, which Herman was able to purchase from the program. It wasn’t a long-term solution, she said, but those few weeks bought her enough time to finalize a contract with another local bread company.

Culinary arts students in Louisa County stepped in to bake hamburger buns for weeks when the district was unable to source them from its usual supplier. (Courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools)

“But they’re on standby, so if I ever run into an issue they’re trained and ready,” she said. The division’s maintenance staff have also stepped in to help with supply chain problems. There have been times this school year when trucker shortages delayed shipments from suppliers. When that’s happened, Herman said maintenance workers have driven all the way to Richmond or Ashland to pick up orders directly from the distribution center.

“I’ve had three employees out for the last two weeks and our school resource officer was in the kitchen bagging meals,” she said. “Custodians, teachers who had a free break, anybody with time has been coming in and helping the cafeteria staff. So I feel very blessed to be where I am because people are jumping in to help us out.”

Lunch rooms across Virginia are facing a similar strain. In Chesapeake, there are currently more than 63 open kitchen positions and at least 30 vacancies for lunch monitors. “Our staffing has dropped almost 61 percent in the last few years and we’re serving more meals than ever,” said Wade, the nutrition director for Chesapeake Public Schools. In the face of unfilled orders and unpredictable availability, some divisions are running to Costco or Walmart for supplies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school nutrition, has issued a slew of waivers giving schools more flexibility to skirt typical nutrition standards and other federal regulations. The agency also raised reimbursement rates mid-year to account for rising counts — an unusual move that directed roughly $750 million more to lunch programs across the country.

Still, most meal directors are reluctant to compromise nutrition standards unless it’s absolutely necessary. And grocery stores are rarely a sustainable alternative for school districts — especially large school districts that feed thousands of students every day.

“It does become challenging because we need so much more product — hundreds of cases in some instances,” Wade said. Like many division directors, he’s been working at least 50 or 60 hours a week to source supplies and adapt menus on the fly. In some cases, though, the shortages have been met with mixed reactions from students.

“I had one little girl who said to me, ‘I just can’t wait for chocolate milk to come back,’” Early said. “And this was like the second day we had been out.” Still, the constant menu changes have been yet another test for both students and staff amid an unpredictable school year.

“Schools have been using every model known to man to get that food out to children,” Curwood said. “And it wasn’t as bad at the beginning. But it’s sort of like asking someone to run six miles. Maybe they can do it, but then you ask them to run another 20? I don’t think anyone was prepared for this pandemic to keep dragging on.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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