GOSHEN — Faced with ongoing supply chain disruptions and national food shortages, school corporations across Elkhart County are having to toss out their typical breakfast and lunch menus and get creative with what makes it onto the trays of their students.
“This school year has brought about new and very frustrating challenges for school nutrition departments across the country,” said Sara Williams, director of food service for Fairfield Community Schools. “The supply chain challenges have been debilitating to school food service programs.
“There are hundreds of businesses involved in the process of getting food from the farm to our loading docks and each one of them is experiencing severe labor shortages due to the COVID pandemic,” she added of the situation. “Warehouse strikes have shut down multiple distributors. Manufacturers are evaluating their product lines to maximize their retail lines, which decreases the available products schools would normally use.”
It’s a situation Sara Reafsnyder, director of food service for Middlebury Community Schools, has become all too familiar with since the district’s new school year began back in August.
“When we place our orders, it is not uncommon for like 10 to 12 things to come back out of stock,” Reafsnyder said. “Even for one school, my high school, it was like 35 items one day. And it’s anything from paper products — I mean, even like paper plates, or plastic cups that we put our smoothies or yogurt parfait in, bowls, anything paper product-wise — to main entrée items. Chicken can be very hard to get, pizza, etc. And it’s different from week to week, but it’s all across the board. So, it’s just very difficult to get certain foods from week to week these days.”
Williams offered a similar sentiment when addressing the ongoing food shortages.
“Currently, when a school orders food, they may order 100 different products and 40 to 50 of those will be out of stock,” Williams said. “During a normal year, fill rates are approximately 98%. We, as well as school nutrition departments across the country, are struggling to find substitutions for the products.”
Kim Johnson, food service director for Baugo Community Schools, agreed.
“Some weeks, Baugo can have four pages of temporarily out of stock items for that food order,” Johnson said. “I can spend up to two days reordering and/or two hours with the sales representative trying to find a product close to what is on the menu without having to change the menu.”
Facing similar issues on her end, Kelsey Rodriguez, director of school nutrition for Goshen Community Schools, said she finds herself constantly having to adjust menus based on what’s available from day to day.
“Menus must change almost daily because of unavailable items, or items that don’t make it on the truck for delivery,” Rodriguez said. “We try to communicate menu changes at a building level, but when items do not come in as expected, sometimes changes need to be made in the moment.”
When asked if any of the district’s schools had ever run out of food as a result of these issues, Rodriguez noted that while many of the students’ favorite meals may not be regularly available at this time, she and her staff do make sure that each student who wants a meal will be offered one.
“We are working with other food distributors in the area to supplement our deliveries and hope to have some relief from these issues in the coming weeks,” she added. “We know that these issues will take some time to work themselves out.”
Making matters worse, Reafsnyder said, is the fact that despite the ongoing food shortages, school corporations must continue to meet all of the national guidelines and meal pattern requirements set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Unfortunately, why it’s so difficult is that we’re having to abide by the national regulations,” Reafsnyder said. “So, we need whole grain pizza, for example, or whole grain chicken nuggets or chicken tenders. We can’t just buy anything and call it good.”
Reafsnyder explained that the USDA has recently begun issuing waivers allowing school corporations to temporarily deviate from the department’s strict food guidelines, which has helped lessen the stress of securing food during these tumultuous times, if only just.
“We have been having to buy outside of those guidelines, and there are waivers from the USDA that allow us to do that,” Reafsnyder said. “But generally, we’re still trying to meet the whole grain requirement, meet the sodium requirement still under those limitations as we’re trying to find food products.”
If there is a silver lining to be found in any of this, Reafsnyder said she is at least able to take solace in the fact that local school corporations do not appear to be in any danger of actually running out of food for their students, though she admits that even that worst-case scenario is never too far from her mind these days.
“That’s definitely a concern that has crossed my mind,” Reafsnyder said. “I’ve definitely considered, do I have to just go to Walmart and Sam’s Club and find what I can find? I know our food distributor is trying so hard to get in products, and the sales reps have been great to work with. But yeah, there might be a time where we just can’t. So, I’ve definitely thought about it. I’m hopeful that we never get to that point, but it has definitely crossed my mind.”
As for how long these issues are expected to persist within local school cafeterias, Colleen Wruble, director of food service for Concord Community Schools, said she’s heard the food shortages and supply chain disruptions could linger for at least the remainder of the current school year, if not longer.
“We are hearing this situation could last well into 2022,” Wruble said. “Please be patient with school cafeteria workers as they navigate through this challenging time. We are truly trying our best to feed students with the food that is available.”