School meal programs in Tennessee feel effects of global supply chain struggles

Regional

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – School meal programs in Middle Tennessee and across the country are feeling the effects of supply chain problems being seen around the world.

“This is generating a tremendous amount of work for school nutrition teams to have to go back in and find menu substitutes, find new vendors, many schools are even having to run out to Costco to purchase paper plates when they don’t have lunch trays coming in on time,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, Spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which represents about 50,000 members who provide meals to students across the country. “This is a nationwide problem. We have heard from schools in rural, suburban, urban areas, in every part of the country that is dealing with supply chain issues. The severity does tend to vary locally based on access to a variety of distributors and vendors. But it’s definitely an issue for all schools across the country.”

In Sumner County, the district told parents that due to supply chain issues, they are no longer able to guarantee the accuracy of their online menu. The Weakley County School District shared that supply chain disturbances meant the list of hard-to-find items from the beginning of the school year is getting longer. Metro Nashville school leaders said they are seeing supply chain issues impacting school meal programs but they’re working with their vendors in advance to find alternatives when necessary.

“There have been some supply issues affecting our food operations, just as there have been with others in the foodservice industry,” stated Rutherford County Schools spokesman James Evans. “We have taken contingency steps to mitigate the issue, such as approving additional food vendors and warehouse stores.”

This is a problem the SNA has been tracking since the summer. Their 2021 Back to School Survey of school meal program directors nationwide showed 97% of them were concerned about pandemic supply chain disruptions. They said schools are still serving students healthy meals every day, but cafeterias all over the country are facing delayed deliveries, canceled orders, shortages of certain items, longer than normal lead/order times, and significantly higher costs.

“There’s not a food shortage. There’s definitely food out there, but many of the items that schools have traditionally ordered are now not being produced or are not available in sufficient quantities,” Pratt-Heavner explained. “Schools are having to rework their menus based on what’s available. They are trying to make sure that any item that they substitute minimizes the impact on students. So we’re hearing a lot about you know, the chicken sandwich wasn’t in stock so we had to menu chicken tenders instead.”

Vendors and distributors are telling schools that the key problem was a shortage of warehouse workers and truck drivers.

“School nutrition directors are sympathetic to their vendors and distributors, and the labor shortages they’re facing because many of them are facing the same shortage and they’re in cafeterias,” Pratt-Heavner said. “They really are putting pleas out to the community. And you know, if you’re looking for another job, consider school nutrition. It’s a great job because you can work on the same hours as your children, you have holidays and evenings off.”

She added that the USDA has been issuing waivers to reduce the amount of paperwork that schools have to do, allowing them to work outside the traditional bid process so they can order what they need at the last minute.

“We have been on the phone with USDA every single week, keeping them updated on this situation and asking them to continue what they’re doing providing schools with flexibility, easing regulatory requirements, and keeping a close eye on rising costs,” she said, adding that communities are urged to be patient. “We’re also urging families and students to be patient during this time. Schools know how important these meals are to student success and wellness. So they’re going to make sure that kids are fed. But the menu choices might be a little more limited. And there will be last-minute menu changes based on availability.”

Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn told News 2 the effects are indeed being felt in the volunteer state and they’re watching it closely as they remain in contact with the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’re seeing supply chain issues with school meals, we’re also seeing it with supplies like HVAC systems, etc, for a lot of the things that our districts want to spend their ESSER dollars on,” said Dr. Schwinn. “I think it’s a nationwide issue. We’re seeing it in other states as well and in close contact with my colleagues about this. The most important thing is we’ve got to make sure we find ways to feed our kids every single day. It is one of the most important things that happen: full bellies, full brain.”

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