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Education

Schools in Ohio Affected by Shortages in Food Supply Chain

cafeteria workers serving school lunches
Bob Nichols (For USDA)
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Via Flickr Creative Commons
Maria Mendez (left) and Jilver Castillo (right), of Arlington Food Services, serve a lunch of Baja fish taco wraps, turkey hot dogs, cherry tomatoes with dip, baked beans and fresh fruit for Washington-Lee High School students in Arlington, Va., Oct. 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

Nearly every school district in Ohio has been affected by the supply chain shortages.

A shortage of workers and raw packing materials, combined with environmental issues like droughts out west, have impacted the food distribution chain all the way down to local schools.

Olivia Stone, the Student Nutrition Services Director at Centerville City Schools, said it’s been challenging to order even staple foods, like chicken, bread and milk.

“It has been unbelievably difficult to source several food items. And it's not that the manufacturers don't have the product,” Stone said. “They don't have the labor to either run their lines or make the products.”

Schools are also serving more meals than they did before the pandemic. In a typical year, schools nationwide get a reimbursement through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option to serve free meals to children in the summer.

At the beginning of the pandemic, however, the USDA extended the program for the rest of the school year to ensure government food standards were met and to keep consistently providing nutritious foods to students, according to a USDA press release.

The program waiver — which is now extended to June 2022 — means that all school meals are free to children whose school participates in the program. In Ohio, a significant portion of schools do participate in the program, according to Brian Davis, the Assistant Director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the Ohio Department of Education.

COVID-19 safety precautions have created some challenges too. To prevent the spreading of the virus, schools are opting to serve individually wrapped items, which is becoming harder to order through food distributors.

As a result, the USDA has authorized schools for emergency purchasing in extenuating circumstances to be able to find a replacement such as going to Costco or Sam's Club, which some schools have already done, according to Davis.

“Everybody at the same time is asking the food producers for the exact same narrow range of items,” Davis said. “It's kind of like a bottleneck problem where everybody is trying to get a specific small thing through a very strained supply channel.”

Stone said feeding more children presents challenges with a shortage of supplies and a cafeteria staff that serves twice as many children than it did a year prior when the district served around 3,000 meals. It now serves nearly 6,000 daily meals, according to Stone.

“We put these menus out and we just cross our fingers. Can we get what the kids are expecting today? And that's the challenge.” Stone said.

She said parents shouldn’t be concerned, menus might change depending on what is available but that their children will never come home hungry.

Food reporter Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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