Supply chain issues are taking a big bite out of school lunch menus

By: - November 3, 2021 6:08 am
A closeup of fresh vegetables on a tray

Food shortages are complicating the ability of many districts to meet nutritional requirements. (Getty Images)

On Oct. 26, the food service director for Governor Wentworth Regional School District hopped on a Zoom call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The news was disheartening. 

The next monthly shipment of staple items from the department would contain only one meat item: pulled pork. The rest of the shipment would consist of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, according to Superintendent Kathleen Cuddy-Egbert. 

“They wanted to update us about our commodities, as they are having orders canceled, deliveries back-ordered, and orders postponed,” Cuddy-Egbert said in an email. 

It wasn’t the first basic shortage the district had dealt with that month. Milk products had become scarce; specialty items such as yogurt were no longer options. 

And it’s not an isolated issue. For months, a cascade of supply chain shortages has hindered manufacturers and retailers nationally. Now, in New Hampshire and other states, those same supply delays are affecting students’ meals. Some ordered items come in days late, some arrive with substitutions, and others don’t come at all. 

These days, when the weekly food supply truck shows up to Hampton’s high schools and middle schools, Mary Borg doesn’t always know what’s inside. One thing is near certain, though: Something will be missing.

“Every week, there’s something,” said Borg, the nutrition director for the district. “At least one item. Every Tuesday there is something on that invoice or on that truck that does not come in.”

Borg, who is responsible for designing the menus in the school district week to week, must use the time and budget she has left in the week to work with what arrives. Sometimes that requires a menu change.

“When the kids are expecting pizza, and you don’t get it in, it’s challenging,” she said. 

The issue has become consuming. 

“There isn’t a week that goes by that we’re not spending a lot more time trying to find food items,” said Lindy Paris, director of food services for the Keene School District. “We were able to find a whole grain muffin last week to bring in, and now we’re trying to reorder those for two weeks from now,” she added. “And several of the flavors are already out of stock.”

A strike by factory workers at Kellogg’s has made some cereal brands scarce. Workforce attraction problems are roiling Tyson Foods, one the country’s largest meat suppliers, Pepperidge Farm, and others, causing delays in product deliveries. And nearly every bulk food supplier is facing a shortage of truck drivers and warehouse staff, delaying orders. 

In a recent email to school officials, shared with the Bulletin by Borg, a New England associate sales manager for Tyson Foods was apologetic. “As a result of ongoing challenges, our supply of certain K-12 beef and pork products may temporarily be disrupted,” the manager wrote. “We are working diligently to address a variety of factors, including labor availability to improve our product inventory levels.”

“They are having to change their menus on the fly, because materials aren’t coming in,” said Carl Ladd, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, citing concerns he’s heard from districts. “So they’re trying to buy materials from, or supplies or food from, local grocers or local suppliers, who may or may not have the food. And if they do, it’s at a much higher cost than what they’re getting through their commodity food.”

Each school district has been dealing with the problem differently. Borg has been building a backup arsenal. Hampton schools have a supply of hot dogs, hamburgers, vegetables, and fruit in its freezers that can help it plug any gaps. So far, the district has had to use that approach about once a month.

“I don’t want to gouge like the toilet paper people last year,” she joked. “But I am kind of ordering a couple of extra cases of hot dogs or a couple extra cases of chicken nuggets just so I have them if, God forbid, something really happens.”

In Keene, Paris and her staff have been flip-flopping menu items to accommodate delays, moving up the meals with more stable ingredients. As it orders, the district tries to get ahead as often as it can. “We order weekly, but we order two weeks out,” Paris said. 

And at Governor Wentworth, officials are working to balance the food shortages with another dynamic: The district is serving more food. 

“For the month of September, we served 2,000 more breakfasts than (the same month in) 2018 and 2019, and I think we will surpass that for October,” Cuddy-Egbert said. “The lunch numbers grow day to day as well. My food service director and assistant director are terrific and making it all work for the moment.”

Juggling act

The new food supply uncertainty has added near-constant wrinkles to what is ordinarily a regimented part of school life. 

In normal years, school meal professionals plan menus a month ahead. They receive a monthly supply of food directly from the USDA, ranging from fruit to vegetables to cheese to meat. That supply forms the backbone of many of the items on the menu; districts then procure food from individual vendors to complete the meals.

In Hampton, about a quarter of the food expenses every month come from the USDA supply, Borg estimates. The other three-quarters comes from the district’s budget, procured by the district from food service companies. 

Even in years without supply chain disruptions, the process means that the nutrition directors must juggle the food they receive with the minimum nutritional requirements for each meal with their budgets and the maximum cost of each meal. 

“The price for lunch is $3.10,” Borg said. “And you’ve got to have a protein, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable, and a dairy product every day.”

As food suppliers start resorting to substitutions, the cost to districts can add up. 

One week, for instance, Borg ordered french toast sticks at $37.32 a case. The items she received were full-sized french toast slices and were priced at $49.94 per case. Borg was buying 10 cases. 

And the delays can have an impact on the districts’ bargaining powers. Many New Hampshire districts partner with a consortium of other districts to purchase food, Merrimack Valley School District Superintendent Mark MacLean said in an email. When those bulk suppliers start falling behind, districts are suddenly on their own to find replacements. 

Nutritional requirements

The shortages are complicating the ability of many districts to meet the nutritional requirements. 

On one occasion in Hampton, a specific brand of chicken nugget produced by Tyson for school districts – and containing at least 51 percent whole grains – did not arrive, Borg said. The schools found a replacement, but it wasn’t compliant with the whole grain minimum requirement that also applies to bread and pastas. 

The USDA has offered waivers to school districts to provide flexibility for some nutritional requirements during the pandemic. The New Hampshire Department of Education is also working with districts through its Office of Nutrition Programs and Services by collecting information about shortages and passing them on to the USDA, a department spokeswoman said. 

But some school officials still worry. 

“These supply chain issues increase our chances of being noncompliant with DoE and USDA procedures and regulations,” MacLean said. 

And the constantly changing ingredients pose a headache when it comes to serving kids with dietary restrictions, district food directors say. Students with diabetes, for instance, need to follow a meal plan that contains precise amounts of carbs to coordinate with their insulin. Reshuffling the menu means the food service workers must also recalibrate those servings.

Parents of those students are reviewing the menus as much as a week in advance. 

“This actually just happened the other day: I gave them a carb count for a corn dog, and we got a different brand of corn dogs and it was a different carb count,” Borg said. “So we have to be on the ball with the product coming in and it gets quite time-consuming.”

Adding to food costs is the delivery method of meals this year. Many districts are serving meals in classrooms to contain students to their cohorts. That means lunches must be packaged in individual containers, organized by classroom, class size, and dietary needs, and delivered to classrooms on time – all while keeping the food warm. The process is a new drain on districts’ budgets and on the food prep staff themselves.

“Literally, we’re running down hallways with the carts to try to keep that temperature right,” Borg said. “Cold foods cold and hot foods hot. But my staff is doing it with a smile and doing it really well.”

And there’s another complication: Paper goods and plasticware are seeing their own shortages, MacLean noted.

Help on the way?

With school districts struggling nationwide, the USDA has sought to offer a funding solution. On Sept. 29, the agency pledged $1.5 billion in nationwide grants to help school districts buy additional food on their own and to bulk up the USDA’s own food shipments. 

It’s unclear how or when that money is getting distributed. Some food services directors weren’t aware of the funding, and officials at the state Department of Education and Department of Agriculture said they did not believe the state of New Hampshire is currently helping disburse the funds. 

“Although we have heard about the $1.5 billion in relief, we have no information about that funding at this time,” a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, Kimberly Houghton, said Monday. 

For now, the food substitutions appear to be working. Kids may be noticing the menu changes, but most haven’t made comments, Borg said. For those who do ask, the answer is straightforward: The food didn’t come in.

As for the supply, Borg hopes a turning point is coming soon. 

“We’re hoping after Christmas all this will be better, get better, be getting better,” Borg said. “But it’s a guessing game.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]