Debilitating supply chain disruptions have shaken the start of the school year in districts across the country as food shortages force officials to find creative ways to properly feed children.
In Alabama, he led the staff of Gulf Shores City Schools will buy food from different vendors, shopping at grocery stores and even preparing meals themselves.
In Wisconsin, the Manitowoc Public School District said proteins like chicken are scarce, while a truckload of hamburger patties never shown and a bakery supplier said there were no more hot dog buns.
And in Indiana, a school district outside of Fort Wayne says he not only struggles to get hold of certain foods, but also disposable trays, silverware and condiments.
The problems extend from the farm to the cafeteria table, compounded by the pandemic and greater economic forces: A labor shortage affected the food distribution and production sectors. There are not enough workers on production lines, in warehouses and behind the wheel of delivery vehicles. And in schools, vacant cafeteria positions have forced staff to serve lunches, and some have stopped providing hot meals altogether.
“There are supply chain problems. Problems with the food distributors. The inability to keep people working. Driver shortage. Every week it’s like, what’s next?” said Liz Campbell, senior director of legislative and government affairs at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a professional association whose members include registered dietitians in schools.
The problem has worsened over the past month, prompting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday to announce initiatives to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions, including $ 1.5 billion in funding and a waiver that prevents schools from being penalized if they cannot meet certain federal regulatory requirements, such as serving types of ‘specific foods, due to shortages.
School lunch programs have become even more crucial during the pandemic after the US Department of Agriculture said last spring it would extend the universal free breakfast throughout this school year – a way to reach millions children overwhelmed by hunger and food insecurity.
Such programs have traditionally served low-income children. Before the pandemic, nearly 100,000 schools served daily lunches to 29.6 million students, according to the USDA. But school closures during the pandemic meant that many students may not have had normal access to meals.
This school year had to be different.
“Many thought it was going to be a transition year before things could finally get back to normal next school year,” Campbell said. “But between this and the delta variant and so many other things, it’s almost worse than the year before because we expected so much to start improving. “
A back-to-school survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, which represents more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals, found that 97% of program directors who responded were concerned about the persistence of supply chain issues related to the pandemic, with 65% citing “serious” concerns. The second main concern was the staff shortage, according to the survey.
“We mainly heard that these supply chain disruptions force schools to scramble to find substitute menu items when their orders aren’t delivered – they have to place additional orders at a higher cost, find new local suppliers, or even work with local restaurants, or buy items from Costco or local restaurant depots, ”said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the association, in an email. school menus are more streamlined than the typical year, and we can expect substitutions until these supply chain issues are resolved. “
However long it may take, it’s up to everyone to guess.
Laticia Baudhuin, supervisor of school nutrition at the DC Everest Area School District near Wausau, Wisconsin, said she was struggling to get some specialty products, including lactose-free milk and soy milk. Last week, she ordered a double convection oven for a school cafeteria; he was told it would not be delivered until March.
Meanwhile, she and other staff who are normally busy with administrative duties work in cafeterias preparing meals.
“I don’t know where all the people are,” Baudhuin said. “We’ve had manpower issues in the past. Being a lunch lady is really, really hard work, and unfortunately it doesn’t attract a lot of people.”
His optimism that the school year would go better than the last has faded.
“We cannot run a quality program,” she added.
Crystal FitzSimons, director of in-school and after-school programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit focused on ending poverty-related hunger, said a benefit this year was that the federal government was providing free meal programs for all students – end instances of students are ashamed on school meal debt.
But now the concerns of school officials about their ability to provide hot, healthy meals for all students present another challenge for already overwhelmed educators.
“Part of the story of the pandemic is that we are constantly trying to catch up,” FitzSimons said. “Things just weren’t back to normal.”
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.