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Feeding the classrooms: Local schools experience food supply chain disruptions – The Advocate-Messenger

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Boyle County High School students pass through the lunch line, getting their entrée of chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls. – Photo by Fiona Morgan

All schools in the Boyle County and Danville School Systems have been experiencing supply chain disruptions since the start of the fall 2021 semester.

Boyle County Schools Food Services Director Katie Ellis said the district was prepared for problems early in the pandemic, but they didn’t have much disruption until the fall of 2021. She said this school year had been a perfect storm.

The combination of resuming in-person learning, switching to a different federal meal plan, the need to feed more students, labor shortages, and increased demand for certain foods and supplies has created a crisis for cafeterias.

Ellis said each week they have to adjust their breakfast and lunch menus based on items that aren’t available. Some popular items they struggled to get are Asian chicken, pancakes, yogurt, cereal, juice boxes, and eggs.

Danville Schools Food Service Director Tammy Lynn said her district was having a particularly hard time getting chicken. Chicken nuggets being one of the most popular dishes, they had to replace it with other dishes. They also had trouble getting hotdogs and corndogs, and sometimes when they get hotdogs they can’t get the buns.

“Week to week, you never know what you’re going to get, if you’re going to get it,” Lynn said.

Boyle County and Danville School Districts use Gordon Food Service as their primary supplier. An article on the GFS website states: “Gordon Food Service and all distributors and manufacturers are fighting the same supply chain battles. It plays out differently in different places, but our situations are all similar.

GFS primarily supplies food from manufacturers to restaurants, healthcare facilities and educational settings. Every week, they post market updates on price changes and food availability on their website.

At Boyle County schools, cafeteria managers place orders with GFS every Friday. On Monday, Ellis said she needed to change orders to replace out-of-stock items. Schools can only order a week in advance due to limited storage space.

Ellis said GFS sends out weekly emails with letters from manufacturers explaining their issues. On its website, GFS cites labor shortages and increased product demand as key barriers to supply.

“Our supplier has tried every way to get us some type of product to feed our kids,” Lynn said.

Sometimes Ellis said she spends 14 to 16 hours editing orders each week. She also had to travel to Louisville and Lexington to get products that couldn’t be shipped.

Ellis and Lynn said workers were doing everything they could to get the food they needed for the students. They regularly inform parents and students of menu changes.

“Our families have been very understanding and I hope that continues as we work through these challenges,” Ellis said. “We know that students love certain meals and we do everything we can to provide them.”

Although the menu items may be different, they never had enough food to feed all of their children. Ellis wants to assure families that they can count on them to continue to serve every student.

Another aspect for schools in Boyle County is that prior to COVID-19, many students had to pay for meals. Since the start of the pandemic, they have been able to take advantage of USDA programs that allow them to serve all students free of charge. In the fall of 2021, Boyle County schools began participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program seamless summer option. As part of the program, they are providing free healthy meals every school day to all students enrolled for the 2021-2022 school year. Students participate in these programs without having to pay a fee or submit a household application.

“I think it’s a blessing for our families and it’s wonderful for our program because we rely on attendance,” Ellis said.

During the pandemic closures, schools in Danville and Boyle County delivered meals to students at home, which changed their demand for products. Federal meal requirements eased at that time.

School nutrition programs are required to meet nutrition goals on a daily and weekly basis. Foods must be whole grain, meet sodium and protein targets, represent all vegetable subgroups, and other guidelines. When districts cannot purchase foods that meet targets, directors must file waivers with the state.

During the summer of 2021, schools operated under federal summer meal programs, which provided more flexibility in what foods could be served.

“These supply chain disruptions occurred at the same time the USDA moved school nutrition programs back to a more rigorous meal model under the National School Lunch Program,” Ellis said.

The program limits the foods schools can order, creating greater menu volatility and placing an additional burden on principals to file waivers when they cannot obtain needed foods. Having to order different products that are sometimes more expensive and not eligible for a federal rebate also cuts into their budget.

“There really is a need for changes at the federal level in light of what we’re going through right now,” Ellis said.

She said that although the system was designed to rely on single suppliers, schools should start working with secondary suppliers when they cannot obtain products from their primary supplier. Boyle Schools started with a secondary provider in January. They also purchased directly from manufacturers in some cases.

Boyle Schools are also starting to do more scratch cooking. They added chili, homemade spaghetti with sauce, chicken noodle soup, chili cheese nachos, chicken fajitas, chicken alfredo, turkey with sauce and other recipes that take a kitchen scraper.

With the start of a new farming year, Ellis is looking for opportunities from farm to school. However, with the growing season being outside the school season, these programs will likely be for summer meals.

Due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, both school districts transitioned to using all paper products, the demand for which has skyrocketed.

Danville schools couldn’t get prepackaged items when delivering food during a lockdown, so workers were packing the items themselves.

Paper products are always in high demand and are one of the biggest challenges to acquire. Even manufacturers are struggling to fill orders due to a lack of packaging materials.

Both districts are also struggling to find cafeteria workers. Lynn said they were continually understaffed.

“We cannot find workers; I hired them and they’ll last a day or two and then they’ll quit,” Lynn said.

With no end in sight for the labor shortage, Ellis believes the old ways of operating won’t work for schools in the future. She works with other foodservice managers and providers to find long-term solutions.

Lynn and Ellis said they were told supply chain issues could continue through the 2022-23 school year.