America has an unprecedented free lunch experiment. But schools can't find food.

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — Turkey for tacos, chicken products, orange juice and meal trays are just a few of the items that Shonia Hall, director of school nutrition services for the Oklahoma City Public Schools, said she can't find.

The latest victim of the supply chain slowdown is the school cafeteria, leaving nutrition administrators scrambling to get proper meals on the table for students as they return to the classroom.

A few weeks ago, Hall's distributor couldn't get sporks, spoons or forks and she had to run to her local Sam's Club to buy 60,000 of each "to get us through for a few days in hopes the truck would show up," Hall said in an interview.

"We can't just hope. We have to be proactive," she said. I can't feed kids without utensils, right?"

Such shortages and being forced to turn to retail stores to fill the void when distributors don't come are becoming more prevalent at schools across the country.

"It's an additional cost to your budget, to your program," said Hall, who adds that she is grateful for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program, which has increased its reimbursement to schools trying to meet meal demands.

And the crunch is coming at an unprecedented time for school lunches.

The meal service waivers known as the "Seamless Summer Option" has been extended through June 2022. The waivers allow for schools to offer meals free of charge to students. Republicans in Congress have been critical of the proposal made by Democrats to make universal free meals permanent because of the potential high price tag.

Just this week President Joe Biden announced three of the largest U.S. goods carriers, Walmart, FedEx and UPS, will up their efforts to address supply chain issues after retailers have already begun warning that some products may not make it to the shelves before the holidays.

"Never again should our country and our economy be unable to make critical products we need because we don't have access to materials to make that product," Biden said in a speech Wednesday.

Logistical backups at shipping ports, driven in part by worker shortages and Covid outbreaks, have doubled the time it takes for some products to make their way from Asia to the U.S.

"Well, we're struggling, you know, we can get food, but we're having a lot of outages and shortages," said Stephanie Dillard, child nutrition director at Enterprise City Schools in Alabama.

The school district has dealt with inconsistent deliveries of food and supplies, like trays and utensils, which is an added layer of stress on school staff who are coming back from a year of mostly remote learning due to the Covid pandemic.

"Every week everybody is holding their breath, not knowing whether we're going to get a truck or not because we don't know if there's going to be truck drivers or there's going to be employees in the distributors' warehouses," Dillard said in an interview.

Schools served almost 500 million lunches on average per month from September 2018 to May 2019. The number dropped during the pandemic-scarred 2020-21 school year to about 330 million lunches per month, according to the USDA.

Besides allowing higher reimbursement rates, the USDA is also giving schools more leeway when it comes to meeting meal guidelines and extending the nationwide waiver through the 2021-22 school year to make all meals free of charge.

Brenton Lexvold, a food service director for Red Wing Public Schools in Minnesota, said he's seeing 62 percent participation in the school lunch program and has seen an increase in breakfast participation.

But if schools can't consistently deliver the food they have told students and parents is on the menu, he worries families won't trust them to provide the meal.

"Sometimes the customers are kind of taking a gamble of saying, 'Well, do I eat school lunch today or am I packing something from home?'" Lexvold said in an interview.

The food service distribution industry has an estimated 17,500 warehouse positions and 15,000 driver positions currently open, according to the International Foodservice Distributors Association. In a recent survey of trade associations members, 100 percent of respondents indicated it was difficult or extremely difficult to find both warehouses and drivers.

The industry has been experiencing what experts call the bullwhip effect, where companies that have pulled back their operations seek to rapidly scale up when demand surges, leaving suppliers scrambling to keep up, said Meghan Cieslak, the association's communications director.

"In terms of school delivery delays, our members are working as hard as possible to get schools the supplies they need," Cieslak said. "The product shortages having the biggest impact should get better in the short term. The labor shortage is impacting both schools and the foodservice supply chain, so that will remain a concern."

While these shortages are affecting the entire country, the hit on school meals is particularly important "because at the end of the day, we are expected not only to give our children a good education, there's also the expectation of providing a nutritious meal," Lexvold said.

"And when you're having these supply issues, it's going to impact your ability to be able to provide that, or at least you're going to spend a lot more time trying to source foods or items that can hit that nutritious box."

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