How schools across US are grappling with sudden supply chain food shortages

'The menu may not be correct as our staff scrambles to assure meals for our students,' one district says on Facebook
By: | September 21, 2021

Schools that have been a primary source of meals for students throughout COVID are now facing food shortages due to widespread supply chain disruptions.

Reports from across the country show district leaders are having to change menus as food suppliers are forced to substitute products. A notice from food supplier Chartwells, posted on social media by the Mattawan Consolidated School in Michigan, said these supply chain problems could continue for months.

“We learned our previous supplier for pizza dough would not be able to commit to serving our schools, so we contracted with a new one that can,” says the notice, which also includes a warning for students with allergies.

“Please remind your child to check with cafeteria manager regarding product substitutions that may not be reflected on the menu posted,” it says.

Schools last week were given flexibility on meeting federal nutritional standards. Schools that fail to meet requirements will not face fines, the U.S.D.A. announced.

Some 97% of school nutrition directors said they were worried about supply chain shortages in a July survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association.

Many were also concerned about meeting nutritional standards, staffing shortages and having to modify meal service.

Here’s a glance at how the most recent shortages are hitting school cafeterias across the country:

ILLINOIS: Dieterich Unit 30 Superintendent Cary Jackson told his school board this week that the district doesn’t have enough drivers to pick up food while Effingham Unit 40 said its first food delivery of the year was canceled on the morning it was supposed to be delivered, according to the Effingham Daily News.

Teutopolis Unit 50 officials reported having to replace chicken fillets with rib patties and swapping out bags of chips due to a lack of stock. The district has even had trouble ordering powdered vinyl gloves for kitchen staff, the Effingham Daily News reported

INDIANA: The supply chain has been slowed by COVID, lack of warehouse workers, and drivers, Hamilton Community Schools said Sept. 6 on Facebook. “The menu may not be correct as our staff scrambles to assure meals for our students,” the message said. “We will take necessary steps to ensure breakfast and lunch continues. Only half of the order for next week is coming in and replacement items are difficult to find.”

Indiana districts have struggled to find bottled water, chicken, pizza, cheeses, paper products and silverware, among other products, The Herald Republican reported. 

KENTUCKY:  Scott County Schools have faced paper products shortages, which are tied to staffing shortages, Spectrum News 1 reported. When the district’s cafeterias are fully staffed, real trays are used. But when there are not enough staff to wash dishes, paper products are necessary, the website said.

MINNESOTA: Staples such as flour, wheat, soy, beans and corn have at times been in short supply, St. Paul Public Schools food service managers told KSTP.com. “We had six trucks scheduled for delivery here and only one showed up, so we are working to reschedule things like that,” Nutrition Services Director Stacy Koppen told the station.

MISSOURI: Along with shortages, a spike in market prices is also impacting schools. Chicken wings, for example, cost about three times what they normally would and schools cannot afford these prices, the News Tribune reported. “We have no way of knowing when these issues will be resolved, but we do feel confident that the alternative solutions we are working on will be sufficient in the meantime,” Jefferson City School District Director of Nutrition Services Dana Doerhoff told the News Tribune. 

NORTH CAROLINA: Asheville City Schools officials told parents flat out they are “having difficulty receiving chicken,” My40.TV reported. The district is serving meals based on the items it is receiving as substitutes, the website reported.

OREGON: “We’re continually scrambling,” Ben Guyton, director of nutrition services for the Gresham-Barlow School District, told KGW.com. “We have to ask, what do we have? Do we have enough of it? Does it count the right way for USDA meal pattern?”

Like the USDA, the Oregon Department of Education is granting temporary waivers for some nutritional requirements, KGW.com reported.

PENNSYLVANIA: Students in the Butler Area School District are seeing fewer choices at lunch, Superintendent Brian White told WPXI.com. “The disruption in the supply chain, it’s really manifested itself in changing our menu and really not having many choices we want for all our students because we are serving what we can get, not necessarily what we would like to order,” he said.

TEXAS: Dallas ISD is reducing the use of flatware with school meals due to supply chain shortages. The district has imposed the following restrictions:

  • Breakfasts served on Tuesdays and Thursdays at most schools will all be finger foods. That means no cereal, which requires a spoon, on those days.
  • Lunches served on Tuesdays will all be finger foods, so no flatware will be available. For example, chicken tenders and baked fries do not require flatware to be eaten.
  • At all other times, students will be limited to a single set of flatware per meal.

“If required due to supply chain issues, breakfasts may be served in ‘to go’ bags in place of trays or plates,” the district said. “Lunches may be served on non-traditional plates or trays, as the supply situation dictates.”

WASHINGTON: Conway School District Superintendent Jeff Cravy told GoSkagit.com that sudden menu changes could leave students with allergies and other dietary issues without a suitable lunch option.

Federal nutritional standards make it harder for schools to find alternatives when supplies are tight, Mark Dalton, the food services director for the Burlington-Edison School District, told the website.