School Meal Challenges as the 2021/2022 School Year Begins | Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB)

School Meal Challenges as the 2021/2022 School Year Begins

Posted by: on Tuesday August 31, 2021

It’s the perfect storm…increased food and fuel prices, vendors closing or deciding to no longer work with school districts, drought, wildfires, fewer warehouse staff/truck drivers and unfilled school foodservice positions. Some of these factors have been affecting school meal programs for years before the pandemic, others are new. Yet school foodservice staff get up every day and continue to feed children in a very tough and ever-changing environment.

Overview of school supply chain issues…

Supply chain woes come to school cafeterias details the supply issues facing school foodservice: from canned fruit to lunch trays (preferentially provided to restaurants) in addition to higher prices, transportation issues and labor shortages (cooks and truck drivers). Some manufacturers are cutting back on foods they previously offered or stopped school deliveries. Other manufacturers themselves have insufficient labor to prepare their products. One company cut the varieties they offered and was stockpiling ingredients. Another notified some districts in Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas and others that they wouldn’t be supplying them causing these districts to seek new suppliers. The SNA (School Nutrition Association) sent a August 23rd letter to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack about supply chain issues and suggested ways to address procurement challenges including the easing of some reporting, monitoring and meal pattern requirements. A Sept. 30th SNA-hosted webinar with USDA is planned. SNA Survey: Extensive Challenges Persist Into SY 2021-2022 shares survey results reflecting over 1300 school meal program directors: 97% are concerned about pandemic supply disruptions and 65% see this as a serious concern. In addition, 90% worry about staff shortages and 86% worry about the ability to sustain the program with current funds. Strategies to address finances included cutting staff, decreasing variety in foods offered and deferring major purchases. Whole grain and sodium targets were also concerns.


August 24, 2021 Smartbrief webinar: What’s on the menu for the 2021/2022 school year? Dealing with new and continuing challenges in K-12 school foodservice (1 hour) has 2 speakers – the Executive Director of the Urban School Food Alliance (representing 16 of the largest school districts) and the Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Boston Public Schools. The first part of the webinar is devoted to supply chain issues, the 2nd looks at universal meals. Dr. Katie Wilson, Urban School Food Alliance, shares some ‘on-the-ground’ stories of distributors cancelling school contracts and underscores the ‘cost’ of doing business with schools including a myriad of food specifications (one manufacturer said it cost $1500 – $1600 to respond to one bid), rules requiring a 30-minute window for delivery, no deliveries when children are present and too many choices (64 SKUs for 1 chicken patty is one example). There is need for a new federal business plan for school meal procurement. Dr. Wilson has seen an increase in food prices of 7 to 30%. Laura Benavidez, Boston Public Schools, echoed the above issues and added the challenge of city ordinances such as when food can be delivered and noise ordinances in some neighborhoods.

Examples of supply chain challenges and how they are being addressed…

The Bismarck, ND school district notes not enough truck drivers, insufficient packaging as well as manufacturers discontinuing products and will likely have to reduce their variety of options. Lee County, FL cited ‘unprecedented’ supply issues leading to menu changes with very little notice noting that it won’t be possible for every school to offer the posted menus each day. A SC school district is finding it hard to get poultry, some canned vegetables and paper products. Cedar Rapids, IA is addressing the scarcity of products by buying some items and storing them in their freezer ahead of the SY 2021 – 2022, an option not possible for smaller districts. Items such as pizza and hamburger buns may be difficult to find or unavailable because school nutrition requirements make them unacceptable to the public thus not cost-effective for manufacturers to offer them. The Santa Ana, California school district finds drought and wildfires increases fresh produce prices or makes them unavailable. Jicama is one example of a popular menu item grown in California affected by the weather and food shortages/higher prices that follow. Maine school districts use local sources to address procurement issues by getting tomatoes from local farmers to make puree as a substitute for canned crushed tomatoes. Local poultry is also a local source in this Maine school district.