Supply chain problem hits school cafeterias

Thanks to recent and visionary education/nutrition programs, schools are as much eating places as learning places. But, that now comes with the added burden of making sure schools can get enough food and supplies to do the job. 

Hungry students learn less than well-fed ones, but that's in some jeopardy. In California, Almost 2,000 School Nutrition Program Operators serve free meals to 6.1 million students every school day regardless of family incomes.

Robert Lewis runs a large southern California agency that supplies food to elementary schools in four districts. 

"We're serving many more students that we were serving before COVID and that's because we're serving them at no cost," said Dr. Lewis. The re-opening of California, coupled with worker shortages and supply chain crises has hit schools hard. 

Jennifer LaBarre, runs San Francisco School's 50,000 student nutrition program. "I've been in this industry for [24 years] and this is a school year like none other and that's saying a lot considering the previous two school years we've gone through," said Ms. LeBarre.

Statewide, school foodservice departments are beset with significant staffing shortages with San Francisco doing better than most. 

"Needless to say, we are still struggling to find employees and we're always hiring for that," said LeBarre. 

Schools are frequently receiving unanticipated termination of food and supply contracts as well as last-minute cancellations of partial and entire food orders. 

"We might order a hundred cases of something and we might get 60," said Lewis. Often, unexpected substitutions of food products from short handed suppliers make meal planning difficult, if not impossible. 

For example, in San Francisco, cheese pizza: yes. Pepperoni pizza: no," said LeBarre.

"That's why they're only able to provide one type of pizza that we're able to serve to our students. Even packaging, to keep food COVID free, almost all of it is made overseas, is caught up in the port and truck shortage debacle. 

"Everyone's using more paper goods and plastic goods and those are stuck in the port," said Lewis. Add to all that, prices increased in the 30 to 60 percent range.

While any one of these problems can derail a foodservice program, the majority of school food programs are getting hit by all at once, on a continuing basis. "So far we're making it but it is a day to day trial and error, making sure we get enough food to feed the children," said Lewis.

A lot of hoped for and planned healthier food programs, may have to wait.