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‘It May Even Get Worse.’ As Supply Chain Crisis Continues, Districts Lean on Local Restaurants for Help While Knocking Some Kid Favorites Off the Menu

By Linda Jacobson | October 13, 2021

Students at Lakewood Elementary School in White Lake, Michigan, enjoy Little Caesars pizza for lunch — a weekly offering in the Huron Valley Schools that is helping the district’s nutrition department get through the shortage of other menu items. (Huron Valley Schools)

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This story is published in partnership with The Guardian

On Tuesdays, three Little Caesars stores across Oakland County, Michigan, make 273 pizzas in the morning even before they open for business. On Wednesdays, another 320 pies are out the door before noon.

But their customers aren’t sports fans ditching work to watch a day game. They’re students in the Huron Valley Schools in Highland, Michigan, northwest of Detroit. 

“Our little kids cheer when the pizzas come. It’s one thing our kids can count on,” said Sara Simmerman, food and nutrition supervisor for the 8,600-student district.

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Like most districts across the country, Huron Valley is facing unprecedented food and labor shortages caused by what supply chain experts say is nearing a “global transport systems collapse.” Experts say as the economy reopened following lockdowns, multiple industries — including those involved in delivering food and supplies to schools — have faced increased demand they can’t meet.

Many predict the backlog of orders could extend throughout the rest of the school year. Forced to adapt their meal programs to a grab-and-go system last year when schools shut down for remote learning, school nutrition departments are now scrambling to find menu items and enlisting front office staff and school administrators to serve meals.

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“We’ve been told it may even get worse before it gets better,” Simmerman said. The district’s partnership with MAC Foods Group, which owns the Little Caesars stores, began before the pandemic, and has become a rare source of stability as the district increasingly improvises its in-house menus. 

The unpredictability of deliveries adds to the frustration. A satellite kitchen that serves the district’s elementary schools recently received only 35 of  400 cases of food ordered. A few days later, 700 cases arrived at once.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Simmerman said. “It’s amazing how many kids want to eat salad when you don’t have lettuce.”

A nationwide shortage of long-haul truckers is one piece of the complex puzzle that determines whether Los Angeles students get applesauce or schools across Michigan’s Oakland County offer chocolate milk. 

“Deliveries of goods and foods are extremely delayed. It now takes an average of eight weeks to receive an item that previously showed up in two to three weeks,” said Lieling Hwang, assistant director of nutrition services for the Long Beach Unified School District in California. “Typically, these deliveries are coming in short, as well.”

That means middle and high school students aren’t getting their favorite “spicy cheese crunchers,” and the whole wheat croissants that were used to make breakfast sandwiches have been discontinued, Hwang said.

‘Don’t have the luxury’

Some school nutrition directors are scheduling deliveries after hours or directing distributors to central warehouses and then using district staff to get food to local schools, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced $1.5 billion in assistance to help school nutrition departments keep up with rising costs. The funds will provide schools with fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. This would free up other funds to offer hiring bonuses to address staffing shortages. But Pratt-Heaver noted that agricultural commodities usually account for only 15 to 20 percent of what districts serve, and they still have to rely on vendors and distributors for other food and supplies. 

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The lack of paper products, for example, is almost as bad as the shortage of food, said Sharon Glosson, executive director of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. 

“There really isn’t an alternative to a plate,” she said, adding that in the past, staff would use multiple plates or containers because some children like to keep their food separated. “We don’t have the luxury to do that anymore.” Elementary schools in the district, meanwhile, use plastic trays with compartments, but washing them takes labor, and the district still has almost 150 unfilled positions.

Because of a lack of foam packaging, the Huron Valley district puts meals in grab-and-go bags, reducing wait times for students and the need for more staff members. (Huron Valley Schools)

Labor shortages are also a challenge for MAC Foods Group.When stores are short-staffed, Simmerman and administrative assistant Colleen Armstrong pitch in. 

“We go and deliver the pizzas ourselves if we have to,” Simmerman said. 

Costs are ‘soaring’

Nutrition directors say that while students might not get their favorite entrees, they’re keeping children fed. Parents don’t have to pay for school meals because Congress made them free for all students this year. But it’s the shortages students face when they go home that Hwang and others worry most about. 

“These issues do affect students outside of school as the cost of foods [and] supplies is soaring,” Hwang said. “Scarcity and unaffordability … makes food insecurity even more pronounced now.”

Congress created the Pandemic EBT — electronic benefit transfer — program to cover the cost of food for students while schools were closed. The American Rescue Plan, the relief package passed in March, continued the program through the summer and this school year. But the program is only meant to serve students who are learning remotely.

A school nutrition staff member distributed meals last summer in the Rialto Unified School District in California, a No Kid Hungry grant recipient. (No Kid Hungry)

An increase in the benefits low-income families receive through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program took effect Oct. 1, providing about $36 more a month per person. But the supply chain bottlenecks are causing prices to climb at the grocery store, and food banks are experiencing some of the same shortages as schools. 

Affected by labor shortages, wildfires and the pandemic, the Oregon Food Bank, for one, has seen a drop in donations as well as higher prices at a time when demand for services has doubled. The disruption means less fresh produce and affects supplies at school food pantries that low-income families depend on for weekend meals, said spokeswoman Ashley Mumm. The food bank provided funds to the school pantry programs so they could stock up at grocery outlets and big box stores like Costco.

“More and more barriers are placed in front of families,” said Lucy Coady, director of No Kid Hungry, a national campaign of the nonprofit Share Our Strength. “This is affecting every aspect of how hungry kids are fed across the country.”

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