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Your public school kid's lunch might be served on a pizza slice box. Here's why

For many public school districts now every meal, like this Mandarin Chicken at Compass Elementary in Kansas City is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt to source food.
For many public school districts now every meal, like this Mandarin Chicken at Compass Elementary in Kansas City is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt to source food.

American public school students are likely eating a lot more meals at school this year.

School food has been free for lower-income kids and some entire districts in the past, and it has been available for purchase to other kids, sometimes at a reduced cost. School districts are responsible for their own programs and are then reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), primarily for the subsidized meals. This year, because of the pandemic, meals are free to all students, and the USDA is theoretically picking up the cost But shortages are crimping the program and costs are rising.

These meals include breakfast and lunch, and in some districts, dinner.

But labor issues are making that sustenance hard to find, triggering the worst supply chain headaches schools have faced in decades. Sourcing is a nightmare. Some staples of school dining, like chicken, can be hard to come by, and your kid's lunch might have to be served on a plastic nacho tray lid, according to nutritionists and school district officials NPR interviewed.

They say labor is the biggest issue. Food processing plants don't always have enough workers to keep production humming, trucking companies don't have all the drivers they need to haul food from factories, and companies that supply schools can't fully staff their warehouses.

School districts are high-volume, low-margin customers and many of them are now scrambling to feed their students.

"It's like a ginormous hurricane," says Grennan Sims, the director of nutrition services at the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City. "And it keeps coming at us."

Sims' distribution companies are choosing to serve more profitable customers, rather than some school districts. The company her district used for years, Kohl Wholesale, started canceling truckload deliveries early this school year and cut ties with the district altogether soon afterward. Other large distributors have done the same to districts around the country, leaving people like Sims with thousands of students to feed and no clear way to buy all the groceries they need.

Grennan Sims, director of Nutrition Services for the Hickman Mills school district in Kansas City is proud of the work she and her staff are doing to cobble together meals for the district's 5,600 students.
Frank Morris / NPR
Grennan Sims, director of nutrition services for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, is proud of the work she and her staff are doing to cobble together meals for the district's 5,600 students.

Every meal cobbled together is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt

"If you think about when the world kind of shut down in March of 2020, and the months that came after that, and the empty shelves that were experienced, what people saw then is what we're seeing now, but it's just exponential," Sims says.

Now every meal Sims and her staff cobble together is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt for the district's 5,600 students; a volunteer's vanload of chicken straight from a processing plant here, a box of donated utensils there, a new supplier gradually taking up part of the slack, but no certainty. And this is happening nationwide.

"We are hearing from schools all over the country that just aren't receiving the foods and supplies that they ordered," says Diane Pratt-Heavner, with the School Nutrition Association.

Pratt-Heavner says that some districts scrambling to feed kids are shopping at Costco, Sam's Club or regional restaurant supply depots. And she says they're paying more. Not necessarily more for identical items, but more money to fill in the gaps that they need to complete their menu. They can't get the same products they have been using. For example, in Sims' school district, she says the chicken she is able to source regularly has more than doubled in price.

Pratt-Heavner notes that most districts haven't fully tallied costs, as they are kind of in survival mode.

"It's been so fast and furious trying to reorder substitute items that they're not even looking at the price, it's more a matter of what can they get. They have to have trays or entrée items or fruits or vegetables — they're going to order whatever it takes," Pratt-Heavner says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping to pick up the added costs. The USDA is reimbursing districts for school meals at about 15% higher than the normal rate. It's announced that another $1.5 billion in aid is forthcoming but hasn't spelled out how that will be distributed. The agency is also easing regulations.

But Pratt-Heavner says she does not believe that the added money from USDA is covering all the additional costs that schools are carrying.

Meanwhile, the USDA hasn't released dollar totals for exactly what all this is costing, partly because of the lag time in collecting information.

"We absolutely want schools to serve the most nutritious meals possible. And we believe they want that too, but we also believe that no school should be penalized if the truck doesn't show up and they don't have the fruit cup to put out that day," says USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long.

There's no relief in sight

Some districts may have fruit, but not the cup, or the five-compartment tray on which to serve it. Lori Drenth, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Hernando County School District in Florida, says the five-compartment tray was — until lately — the foundation of every meal. Normally the district goes through about 5 million of them annually, but this year Drenth is scrambling to find substitutes.

"I mean, seriously, I spend my days combing the internet for what can I put, what can I serve things, uh, menu items to students on," Drenth says.

By serving food on nacho bowl lids, pizza slice boxes, little deli meat trays and 9-inch Styrofoam plates, she's getting by. She says she'd like to go back to the reusable plastic trays many people remember from the school cafeteria. But even if she had the trays, she doesn't have extra people to clean them because in addition to the shortage of food and disposable serving products, Drenth, like many other school nutritionists, is dealing with a serious labor shortage of her own.

"There's just an endless overcoming," laments Drenth. "Whether it's, you know, paper goods or staffing, or pay or food, it can be exhausting."

And there's no relief in sight. Drenth and others expect the nonstop chaos of cobbling together menus on the fly to continue at least through the end of the school year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.