Feeding students the latest pandemic struggle

·3 min read

Oct. 18—Ordering supplies to feed Londonderry students a collective 3,200 meals each school day was once a fraction of Amana Venezia's job. Now, mid-pandemic, labor and supply shortages have turned the task into a full-time frenzy.

Venezia, the school district's dining services director, says it's a new game of sorts — one that's far from fun.

"It is a jungle out here," she said.

"We're seeing about 70% fulfillment on orders," she added. "That is a ton of out-of-stock products which we have to make a reactionary plan to replace on our menu. We have trucks that arrive two and three days late. and it's turned into a guessing game of 'what's on the truck today?'"

The impact doesn't mean kids are going hungry, but cafeteria programs across the region are scrambling to get what they need, or suitable alternatives.

Methuen Public Schools Director of School Nutrition Services Robert Frati has seen fewer drivers and not enough products to fill the usual trucks.

Gail Koutroubas, director of food and nutrition services for Andover Public Schools, describes the state of things in a single word: "awful."

North Andover's Director of Food and Nutrition Services Erika Murphy felt compelled to clue parents in with a recent letter.

She asked for patience and support while the district navigates "unprecedented shortages" of food and packaging supplies, on top of massive delays or cancellations.

Murphy told parents, "These supply chain issues are occurring throughout the country and have become especially challenging to school districts, due to the quality of meals we serve and the nutrition standards we must follow."

The federal government has been easing requirements to provide flexibility for school districts as they try to deal with it.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a waiver that prevents school meal programs from being financially penalized if shortages prevent them from meeting certain federal regulatory requirements.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent statement that the federal government is taking an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to helping schools.

From Londonderry, Venezia said discussions with distributors lead her to believe that the situation will continue to get worse before improving.

"Many companies have cut school items in favor of producing retail products which they make a higher profit on," she said.

"They do not have the labor to run their lines, and they have to make tough decisions. Then on top of that, prices are soaring. Either you can't get it or you are paying a huge increase."

Mozzarella sticks, chicken products and cereal are on the elusive list.

Venezia and her Londonderry team have gotten creative by adding from-scratch items to menus, including pancakes, muffins, French toast sticks and biscuits.

Suitable staffing is also a problem in the Londonderry kitchens. Venezia said a recent wage increase has helped draw some applicants, but more quality nutrition professionals would certainly help.

"Right now I don't have a choice. If we don't make food, kids don't eat," she said.

"It's going to mean coming up with a possible second shift. I've heard of some schools down South utilizing student labor. Right now, we're just making it."

Reporter Christian Wade contributed to this report.

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