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Local schools struggle with food shortages, delivery issues

school food

Julie Hall and Dee Gidden serve students at West County Middle School in September.

School districts across the state are facing a supply shortage that is directly affecting students. In fact, some districts are not receiving scheduled food deliveries. Wholesale suppliers are unable to deliver products because they are not receiving the items to ship to their customers and do not have enough employees to get the products to the places where they need to go.

Cost is another issue for school districts. Prices of foods – and substitutes for certain products that are out of stock – have steadily increased.

West County Superintendent Dr. Kevin Coffman said his district has been experiencing food shortages. Although items are ordered at scheduled times, food distributors are having difficulties in getting items to be able to deliver them.

“We have been told by our food distributors that they’re having problems getting food to them and then to get it to us,” he said. ‘There is a definite lack of supplies and lack of drivers to our facilities.”

He said recently there was one week where the district did not receive any of the food supplies they ordered.

“We’ve been getting partial shipments,” he said. “We are watching our resources and planning as best as possible to utilize what we already have on hand.”

He said the food services staff consisting of 13 cooks is doing their best with what they already have available.

They are continuing to provide students with nutritious meals despite the supply shortage.

Cliffta Thurman has been food service manager for seven years and an employee at West County for 10 years. She said the district’s food costs have been increasing.

She said the district’s food issues have varied from week to week. One week, their orders were canceled. They did not get a delivery at all. Each week, certain items are missing from their orders. Typically, they do not find out what items will be missing until the truck arrives. On a recent order, eight items were out of stock and four other items were substituted at a higher price.

Thurman said chicken nuggets have been a difficult item to receive this year. French fries, tater tots and hash browns have been nonexistent, along with cookie dough, Goldfish crackers, Cocoa Puffs cereal, French toast sticks, crackers, croutons and some chips. Other items which are difficult to get include paper products and food containers such as the hinged boxes.

“The disappointment continues,” she said, “and I apologize to the students. I feel bad for them. I know they’re disappointed when we don’t have certain items, but I cannot control these things that are happening now.”

She said schools have also been deemed non-essential for bottled water.

“The government said the bottled water needs to go to the retail stores because they’re higher priorities than schools,” said Thurman.

She said the issues are stemming mostly from their main supplier for food who is having difficulty getting their warehouse stocked, keeping it stocked and then getting enough drivers to deliver the items.

Thurman said Kohl Warehouse, the main supplier of food for West County schools, actually had to drop service to 300 schools in southern Missouri and nearby states in order to serve their current clients.

“Most of the area schools use the same supplier,” she said. “The company’s hub is in Quincy, Illinois, and they are trying to focus on the districts nearest to them.”

Jackson and Cape Girardeau schools are two districts that were recently dropped from Kohl’s routes.

Thurman said she’s not sure what the districts who have been dropped will do for food service. She has talked to other wholesalers who say they are not accepting any new clients or new bids for groceries.

One of the students’ favorite is Crispitos. These have been discontinued for now because the items are too labor-intensive for the manufacturer to make due to their short staffs.

The cooks at West County have discussed making Crispitos on their own. In fact, they found a recipe and have discussed the steps to take to do so to be able to continue to offer this crowd-favorite option.

Another student and staff favorite is Asian chicken. However, this product has increased more than $30 per case, which may make it difficult to continue to offer this product on the schools’ menu.

“Our grocery bill is going up for the district,” said Thurman. “I hate that, but our hands are tied. We’re being notified at least once a week by manufacturers that prices are increasing.”

Students at West County are accustomed to having multiple options for lunch.

“Right now, we don’t have enough food options to offer a second or third choice like we’ve done in the past,” said Thurman. “We are trying to make do with what we have on hand. We’re changing menus on a regular basis at all three buildings.”

They have still not received their first USDA commodities order for the current school year which includes such items as ground beef, canned vegetables and fruits, and cheese. This order was placed last February. The most recent update now estimates the first order will arrive at the end of October.

“Not getting the items I have ordered for our district really affects our menus for breakfast, lunch and after-school meals,” said Thurman.

But she said the food services staff is sharing resources, utilizing what they already have in new and different ways, and working together to continue to provide students with good quality and nutritious meals.

For the Arcadia Valley School District, Assistant Superintendent Kent Huddleston said their district has not been receiving trucks on a steady basis to deliver food and paper supplies. Their food services program is contracted through OPAA! Food Management Inc.

As a result, the district has utilized local stores to purchase certain products.

“We have not had to alter our menus for breakfast at all,” said Huddleston. “We also have not had to alter our lunch menu in the elementary. However, our middle school/high school have moved from five choices each day to three choices on the lunch menu.”

He said the district is doing its best with the resources they can get.

“Regardless of supply shortages and the uncertainty of receiving trucks, we feel that OPAA! is going above and beyond to ensure that all students are fed each and every day.”

Potosi Superintendent Alex McCaul said his district does not contract out for their food services program.

“Currently, we use multiple vendors and have not noticed an issue with not getting deliveries themselves,” he said. “The issue is that certain items are just not available right now.”

Some of the items they have had difficulty getting delivered include hot dogs, burritos and chicken products. As a result, the district has substituted planned menu items with other foods.

“Our food services director has done a great job lessening the effects of food items not being available,” said McCaul. “She is monitoring this issue on a daily basis with multiple contingency plans in place if an item is not available.”

Bismarck Superintendent Jason King said their district is contracted with OPAA! Food Management Inc.

“We have experienced both food shortages and delivery issues this school year,” he said. “The issues are mostly pandemic-driven.”

King said food shortages, coupled with COVID-related quarantines and a limited supply of warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers have resulted in delivery delays, product substitutions and other challenges.

As a result of this, Bismarck students have had the number of entrée choices reduced.

“While it has been difficult, through the efforts of OPAA!, local grocery stores and other retail food suppliers, Bismarck R-5 has continued to provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches every day,” said King.

One of those local businesses is Mike’s Market who has provided bulk meat and breakfast items, canned and fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, paper supplies, and more.

Both OPAA! and district food service staff have shown great commitment and versatility during this difficult time.

All students in the U.S. are receiving free breakfast and lunch due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursing schools and childcare centers for free meals regardless of their income through the 2021-22 school year.

Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal

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