Supply issues impact school food programs

For many area school children, the school lunch menu seems a little different this year — there seems to be a glut of pears some weeks, a lot more lunches overall appear to be featuring applesauce and baked beans, and there’s just less variety than in year’s past — and there’s a reason for that.

Supply chain issues.

As supply chain woes seemingly disrupt everything these days from lumber to Christmas trees to even Thanksgiving turkeys, school lunch programs across Iowa and beyond are also feeling the pinch.

“There are weekly shortages of food products from fresh produce to premade foods and supply items,” Christina Hanna, Food Service Director with Union Community Schools, said in an email interview. “I also receive many emails weekly of items being deleted or not available because of manufacturing issues.”

Michelle Kalinay, South Tama County Schools Food and Nutrition Director, has also been feeling the supply chain pinch.

“We are probably having the hardest time with products going out of stock as fast as they come into our vendor’s warehouse,” Kalinay said in an email interview. “We try to put our orders in as soon as possible but by the time they get to our order their product is gone already.”

For many children, a school lunch is the most reliable form of nutrition they will receive all week which means finding ways around the varying food shortages has been paramount for Kalinay, Hanna and every food service director in charge of feeding hundreds of children up to two meals a day at our area schools.

Though the serving size varies between each grade level, meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) — established and signed into law by President Harry Truman as part of the National School Lunch Act in 1946 — must meet federal requirements.

A whole grain product, a meat or meat alternative, a fruit, a vegetable, and a half pint of milk must be served with every school meal as part of the NSLP nutrition standards.

Being in compliance with federal requirements while also creating menus weeks in advance has at times necessitated some last minute creativity in the lunchroom this school year.

“Last week we were supposed to have the Crispitos,” Kalinay said, “and we ended up having to purchase premade cheese and chili quesadillas. There is such a shortage of tortilla shells.”

Kalinay said the most challenging food products to procure for the South Tama school lunch program has been Asian entrees like orange chicken and Mexican entrees such as tacos.

Food products Kalinay’s been completely unable to find at various times include goldfish crackers, cream of mushroom or celery soup, tomato soup, crackers of all kinds, baked chips in any flavor, Gatorade, and the aforementioned Crispitos — shredded chicken and cheese rolled up in baked tortilla shell.

Back in late September, the USDA announced assistance to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions including creating an avenue for school districts to apply for waivers when unable to meet various NSLP nutrition standards.

“Since the start of the public health crisis, school nutrition professionals have worked tirelessly to continue to serve nutritious meals,” United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on September 29, 2021, as part of the USDA’s announcement. “USDA has remained steadfast in its commitment to getting them the support they need to successfully operate meal programs amidst changing circumstances.”

At the time of her interview, Kalinay had not yet needed to apply for a waiver, she said, but as the months have passed since school began, complying with the Whole Grain standard has been the most difficult for her program.

In addition to allowing targeted waivers of certain meal standard requirements, the USDA has also bumped up meal reimbursement rates to schools, assisted with emergency procurement of some food products, and ensured schools are not penalized for failing to meet NSLP nutrition standards due to supply chain issues.

Kalinay said the younger students at South Tama have seemed to notice the menu changes the most.

Despite all the food shortage challenges that have arisen this year while working to create healthy, wholesome school meals that follow USDA requirements, Kalinay said she’s just thankful to have a full nutrition staff.

“I feel I am very lucky this year as I have fully staffed kitchens and they work so well together. … This is a very trying time but I know my staff has strong shoulders and we are all working together to give our students healthy meals.”