Montana’s school cafeterias face supply chain and labor shortages

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Tammy Wham can’t get her hands on canned corn or whole grain muffins. Both are staples of the kitchen at Ennis Public School, where Wham serves as chef de cuisine – or, she jokes, “lady-in-chief at lunch”. Wham and his staff serve breakfast and lunch to approximately 340 K-12 students daily, but many menu items and ingredients have become difficult or impossible to acquire this fall due to national food shortages and supply chain complications.

“I’ve been here since 2001,” said Wham, who is also president of the Montana School Nutrition Association. “It’s like the hardest school year I’ve ever had. It’s kind of a disappointment.

The same situation is playing out in school canteens in Montana. Some kitchens have encountered difficulty in sourcing chicken or pork products, while others have seen milk prices skyrocket. Even plates and utensils cost more or are extremely scarce. These shortages are occurring among major food distributors such as Sysco and US Foods, which supply restaurants and hospitals in addition to schools, and are experiencing labor issues in their own warehouses and truck fleets. It’s happening across the country, leaving school food service leaders scrambling to change menus, find substitute ingredients or source locally, all in the name of feeding the students.

“It could be a dairy product, it could be a vegetable, it could be a canned product, it could be ketchup, it could be chicken,” said Pam Radke, director of food services for Sidney Public Schools. . “There is no rhyme or reason for this. It’s just that it’s everywhere.

Radke has observed online that the ingredients she’s trying to get from a distributor sell out before she can complete an order, prompting her to research and order substitutes. These last-minute substitutions on school menus also required her to closely monitor students with diet-related health issues such as diabetes or gluten intolerance, and to contact parents or a school nurse to find out. alert them to the change.

“My menu is prepared a month in advance,” Radke said. “So [now parents] can’t rely on what he says. It allows a lot more coordination, a lot more communication.

“It can be a dairy product, it can be a vegetable, it can be a canned product, it can be ketchup, it can be chicken. There is no rhyme or reason for this. It’s just that it’s everywhere.

Pam Radke, Director of Food Services for Sidney Public Schools

In more than 30 years in school catering, including 12 in Sidney, said Radke, she has never experienced anything from the current situation. Radke added that the cost of even basic dining supplies has increased at an alarming rate. Last month, a box of three dozen metal forks she was paying $ 6 for $ 18 and was only available by special order.

Similar problems in Missoula have complicated the school district’s continued efforts to reduce waste. Superintendent Rob Watson said public schools in Missoula County were unable to obtain compostable cardboard plates and cutlery from distributors this fall, prompting a return to plastic utensils. At Billings Public Schools, Director of Infant Nutrition Sid Taylor explained that middle and high school canteens in the district have had to get creative in the way they prepare food for lunch, using ” boats ”made of paper instead of the paper trays which are now rare. .

Billings even had to completely eliminate some menu items. The yogurt parfait was a popular menu choice at elementary schools in the district, Taylor said. But its manufacture requires bulk yogurt, which Sysco has not been able to supply. Spicy chicken sandwiches are also in high demand among college kids, but pre-spiced chicken patties are, again, hard to find due to staffing issues at food processing giant Tyson Foods. School staff have tried to make up for the shortage by adding spices to regular chicken patties, Taylor said, but “it’s not the same.”

“On average, we serve about 12,000 meals a day,” Taylor said. “So you know when we run out of something it really does have an impact. “

Some smaller districts have been successful in finding local workarounds to fill the supply gaps. At Greenfield Elementary, outside Fairfield, Food Services Manager Haven Murphy said she was able to make up for shortages by occasionally going to the local grocery store or Sam’s Club in Great Falls. With the current scarcity of whole wheat products, she added, she researched whole grain flour at Wheat Montana. Murphy’s ability to use these palliatives is entirely due to Greenfield’s small size – 80 students in total, plus six to nine staff who also eat school meals. Watson and Taylor said that in larger districts like theirs, the sheer volume of supplies needed precludes such alternatives.

Still, Murphy hasn’t escaped the pinch of National Food Services unscathed. French toast sticks, one of the most popular breakfast foods among young college students, have all but disappeared from the supply chain. And, she said, it had been two months since she couldn’t get hold of canned mandarin oranges. The situation, for Murphy and others, is made worse by federal nutritional requirements governing school feeding programs. Murphy said these guidelines, designed to ensure students get a balanced and nutritious meal, require her to offer both fat-free and 1% milk options, but she sometimes struggles to acquire one. or the other. Fruit juices, too, have become a challenge.

“Normally we would give them like apples, grapes and oranges,” Murphy said. “Then it was apple and orange, then orange juice. We drank a lot of milk and water on those days. … Especially when we couldn’t get the Juicy Juice brand and it was generic orange juice. It was quite disgusting.

The US Department of Agriculture tried to alleviate the situation with regulatory adjustments, the lifting of financial penalties for schools that do not meet certain nutritional requirements and even increase the rates at which schools are reimbursed for free meals. At the end of September, his agency also announced an investment of $ 1.5 billion intended to help schools acquire food necessary to continue to provide breakfasts and lunches.

Shortages of spicy chicken, milk, and canned corn aren’t the only issues facing school food programs in Montana and the country. School kitchens and canteens also suffer from the same labor issues that trigger food shortages. Taylor said the number of food service workers at Billings Public Schools has grown from about 145 to 105 in the past year. As a result, some cafeterias have had to consolidate or completely close lines for separate food items like pizza, burgers, or tacos. Taylor added that due to staff shortages, his human resources director and other administrative staff are now mobilizing to prepare meals at various schools in the district.

“The neighborhood has a nice high-end central kitchen. Our intention is and always has been to produce home-cooked meals and to make the most of these facilities. But unfortunately we just don’t have the staff to manage all of our buildings and the central kitchen to make this happen. So we were relegated to prepackaged food in a lunch bag.

Bozeman, Superintendent of Public Schools, Mike Waterman

Watson notes similar issues in Missoula, where the central district kitchen supports 16 K-12 schools. There are food service positions open at almost every one of these schools, Watson said, and the district tries to entice new hires with a $ 500 enrollment bonus, plus a $ 100 bonus for any employee in the school. district that successfully recruits a new hire. Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Mike Waterman said his district has also decided to offer such incentives in light of ongoing staff shortages.

“That’s why we had to go for a lunch-only bag model,” Waterman said. “The neighborhood has a nice high-end central kitchen. Our intention is and always has been to produce home-cooked meals and to make the most of these facilities. But unfortunately we just don’t have the staff to manage all of our buildings and the central kitchen to make this happen. So we were relegated to prepackaged food in a lunch bag.

As with supply shortages, labor issues impact rural and urban schools. In Sidney, Radke said, his program typically has 11 employees. With the departure of several employees, including herself, that number will soon be reduced to six employees covering an average of 1,300 meals per day in four schools.

“Honestly, I don’t know how this is going to work,” Radke said.

Despite the challenges, everyone interviewed for this story made it clear that there was not yet a day this fall when they could not have fed the students. They also did not report that they were so short of supplies that they did not meet the nutritional standards they were looking for.

“[Students] are definitely disappointed when they don’t get something they expect or really like, so it’s hard to see it, ”Murphy said. “But at the same time, they always get something and it always fills their stomachs.”

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