Supply chain and staffing woes impact Colorado’s school lunches
The beginning of the school year feels like opening a new restaurant for food service veterans like Beth Wallace. New year, new menu and an exciting array of possibilities.
But as this school year got underway, the Jeffco Public Schools’ head of food and nutrition services quickly realized that routine products like cheese and milk were hard to get. So too were gloves for servers and trays for students — with their prices skyrocketing.
Between that and her district’s food staff down 25% from normal levels, Wallace has cut menu options — from the normal six to sometimes one at high schools. School administrators, paraprofessionals and even custodial workers are being asked to serve food in the cafeteria.
“This has been the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career,” Wallace said.
As food manufacturers and those producing other essential goods struggle with their own shortages of drivers and packagers, there’s a trickle-down effect in school districts up and down the Front Range and across the nation. The staffing issues and food delivery snags represent another sign of the pandemic wreaking havoc on students and educators beyond masks and remote learning.
“This is not sustainable,” said Kent Wehri, director of food and nutrition services for Colorado Springs School District 11. “I’m afraid of staff burnout and turnover because they are working so hard. It’s a big concern.”
The federal government has heard the concerns, and just this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it’ll provide assistance to schools seeing supply chain disruptions. The USDA also approved nearly $1.5 billion — including more than $1.1 billion for school meals — in relief funds to help offset costs incurred during the early months of the pandemic.
Food directors are still waiting to see what these announcements might mean for their day-to-day operations, though Wallace called it “the best news I’ve had in 18 months.”
“Headaches and confusion”
Though the supply chain proved resilient for many products after early-pandemic horror stories, K-12 schools are still struggling mightily.
“It all comes back to labor,” said Stephen Menyhart, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District.
And there’s a shortage everywhere you look. American factories have more than half a million job openings. Then there’s the national truck driver shortage, meaning goods might ready to ship but there’s simply no one to carry them from point A to point B.
It all directly impacts school food directors and what kind of food they might get — or not get — in a particular week.
“My chicken purveyor is calling us at 6 a.m., ‘Hey, dude, we can’t get you the stuff because I literally don’t have the people to cut the product,” Menyhart said.
In Colorado Springs, schools are running on “rolling shortages,” Wehri said, because distributors will call and say they’re running two or three weeks behind.
School meal planners map out menus months in advance. But those items are now constantly changing: Burgers in three weeks instead of tomorrow; whole-wheat pasta might just be regular pasta; bean burritos are out, nachos are in.
“It’s causing headaches and confusion at the school,” Wehri said. “We’re sending out new menus on a daily basis because we don’t have product as of right now.”
Denver Public Schools couldn’t get chocolate milk or boxed juices for a while, and saw delays in tortilla chips and bread. In Boulder, string cheese was scarce, while the district waited weeks for muffins to ship from Ohio. In Greeley schools, it’s been frozen chicken and individually wrapped produce that’s been hard to find.
“Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next,” said Matt Poling, executive chef at Weld County School District 6. “Nobody knows what the next thing to be short is, or what the supply chain will leave behind.”
Chefs resort to their back-up option, “but then you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Poling said. “Now I need a substitute for that substitute and it kind of compounds.”
It’s not just certain foods that are hard to get — there’s also a shortage of single-use items such as forks, cutlery, to-go containers and clam-shell packaging. One issue, food directors say, is that manufacturers are consolidating product lines — meaning schools are often the odd customers out.
Meanwhile, prices for hard-to-find items have shot up during the pandemic. Vinyl serving gloves used to go for $2.30 a box, Menyhart said. Now they’re going for $20.
“When you’re talking about feeding hundreds of kids every day, you go through a lot of gloves,” Menyhart said. “Those are astronomically high prices.”
So when manufacturers hike their prices, schools have to think hard about whether they can afford it. Jeffco Public Schools has about $1.80 to spend per meal — including all five components and the utensils, Wallace said. Vendors may provide the school an alternative when they’re short on a product, she said, but the swap sometimes “doesn’t meet our budgetary needs, for sure.”
But beyond supply chain hiccups, schools point to a severe lack of staff as a main driver in their cafeteria changes.
The largest school districts in Colorado are reporting as high as 24% vacancy rates among food service staffs, according to a school survey of food directors. Jeffco is down 90 to 100 employees out of a normal 450, Wallace said, calling the drop-off “pretty extreme.”
Colorado Springs School District 11, which is 75 employees short, lost several people to retirement during the pandemic, Wehri said. Like Jeffco, high school cafeterias there have had to cut food options in half and decrease the number of food lines.
“It’s hard for schools to retain employees when everyone in that service industry is looking to hire immediately,” he said, noting that some fast-food chains are offering sign-on bonuses and higher pay.
In Jeffco, if 10 people interview for a food service position, they’ll be lucky to hire one, Wallace said. And in Boulder, staffing — more than the supply chain — is the main problem, Menyhart said.
“School district budgets reflects priorities,” he said. “Historically, food service workers in schools are among the lowest paid employees, the lowest rungs on the salary schedule.”
And unlike those fast-food chains, many districts can’t immediately respond to the problem by raising pay. Boulder has resorted to recruiting high school culinary students to work part-time in the cafeteria and using bus drivers to hand out meals.
“We always need more help,” said Deb Trevor, Boulder Valley School District’s manager of procurement. “But this situation is even more dire than it usually is.”
As a result, morale in the cafeteria is suffering.
“Our people are getting very fatigued,” said Menyhart, noting that the district is providing 40% more lunches and 68% more breakfasts as a result of the expanded federal no-cost lunch program. “Now we’re up massively on meal sales and paying people the same amount and expecting the same quality. It’s an impossible expectation.”
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