January 18, 2022

Between the increase in the number of cases and staff shortage, Virginia’s public schools were already facing many challenges at the start of the fall semester. Next come supply chain issues.

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“I think I was in the middle of a meeting when we found out there was no bread available from our distributor,” said Randy Herman, director of Louisa County Public Schools Nutrition Services. . “I wasn’t getting anything in the truck.” In Chesapeake, the same thing happened with chicken patties. Harrisonburg and Bristol have faced frozen pizza shortages. In all of 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 weren’t enough products or the right products available,” said Sandy Curwood, director of the school nutrition programs office. from the Virginia Department of Education. “And since then industries have been scrambling to meet those needs.”

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Virginia is not the only state facing supply chain shortages, which have plagued local school divisions for months. But amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they pose a particular burden. Since schools closed in March 2020, districts have at least doubled their meal production, delivering not only lunches but often dinner and snacks to students and their families. Many are feeding both classroom classes and students whose parents have chosen to enroll them virtually. And thanks to federal waivers, most schools now provide all their meals free of charge, which has spurred adoption of breakfast and lunch programs as students return to class.

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

Supply shortages, however, have forced districts to scramble to feed students without compromising nutrition or taste. While bottlenecks in shipping and manufacturing have affected everything from grocery store shelves to big tech companies, Curwood said the issue is particularly complex for schools. Suppliers typically see low margins with their K-12 contracts, and some have unexpectedly terminated agreements with local divisions. The state Department of Education has asked federal authorities to review the practice, but there are additional challenges with sourcing items for schools.

“Everything in the school food is whole grain,” said Kathy Hicks, director of nutrition at Bristol Public Schools. Following those federal food regulations, many manufacturers are producing products specifically for local school divisions — whole-grain breaded chicken nuggets, for example, instead of the refined wheat versions that might be available in grocery stores and restaurants.

“But manufacturers have the same problem as everyone else,” she said. “So they’ve cut back on what they produce for schools. If there’s a choice and they can only make one chicken nugget, they’ll make the one they can sell to Walmart instead of the one they sell us.”

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Current challenges have resulted in widespread shortages of easily transportable items like granola and breakfast bars as well as disposable products including trays, plates, napkins and utensils. Andrea Early, director of public school nutrition for the city of Harrisonburg, said it’s nearly impossible to find disposable cups for the district’s popular yogurt breakfast buffets. Curwood said he heard of a school district in Virginia that received an order for chopsticks when its dispenser ran out of forks. Meanwhile, schools have become increasingly reliant on these items amid the ongoing pandemic, leading many districts to move meals into classrooms to keep students away.

“It’s a real problem that we can’t find a five-ounce cup to use for our meal dispensing,” said Chesapeake Public Schools Nutrition Director Larry Wade. “We operate like a restaurant – we’re probably the largest restaurant chain in the city of Chesapeake. And we find that, like other large companies, we have to make a lot of adjustments based on the market.”

This required creativity and round-the-clock work from nutrition service teams. When Herman realized her supplier didn’t offer hamburger buns, she was faced with the prospect of serving patties on slices of white bread. Instead, she partnered with the district’s culinary arts program. For part of the fall, student bakers provided the division with about 1,500 buns each week, which Herman was able to purchase through the program. It wasn’t a long-term solution, she says, but those few weeks gave her enough time to finalize a contract with another local bread company.

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

“But they’re on standby, so if I ever run into a problem, they’re trained and ready,” she said. Divisional maintenance personnel also stepped in to help resolve supply chain issues. There have been times this school year when the shortage of truckers has delayed supplier shipments. When that happened, Herman said maintenance workers traveled as far as Richmond or Ashland to pick up orders directly from the distribution center.

“I’ve had three employees absent in the past two weeks and our school resource manager was in the kitchen preparing meals,” she said. “The guards, the teachers who had a free break, anyone who has the time came to help the staff in the cafeteria. So I feel very lucky to be where I am because people are rushing to help us .”

Dining halls in Virginia face a similar strain. In Chesapeake, there are currently more than 63 kitchen positions open and at least 30 vacancies for lunch monitors. “Our staffing has dropped nearly 61% over the past few years and we’re serving more meals than ever before,” said Wade, director of nutrition for Chesapeake Public Schools. Faced with unfulfilled orders and unpredictable availability, some divisions are turning to Costco or Walmart for supplies.

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees school nutrition, has issued a series of waivers giving schools more flexibility to circumvent typical nutrition standards and other federal regulations. The agency too increase in reimbursement rates in the middle of the year to account for the surge in numbers — an unusual move that directed an estimated $750 million more to breakfast programs across the country.

Yet most meal directors are reluctant to compromise nutritional standards unless 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 becomes difficult because we need a lot more products – hundreds of cases in some cases,” Wade said. Like many division managers, he works at least 50 or 60 hours a week sourcing and adjusting menus on the fly. In some cases, however, the shortages have drawn mixed reactions from students.

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

“Schools have used every pattern known to man to distribute this food to children,” Curwood said. “And it wasn’t as bad at first. But it’s kind 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 go on forever.”



This story was originally published by the Virginia Mercury. For more stories of the Virginia Mercury, visit Virginia Mercury.com.