Rising COVID cases, staffing challenges, and supply chain issues are causing food shortages in school cafeterias across Virginia.
It's been almost a year since President Biden signed an executive order to fix America's supply chain backups. Still, ripple effects and shortages have left school districts scrambling to feed students without compromising nutrition. While students are still eating thanks to diligent work behind the scenes, it remains a problem that could continue into the upcoming school year.
"I have been extremely stressed over the last two years," said Kathy Hicks, director of School Nutrition at Bristol Public Schools. "We were continuously substituting products – whether it be a paper product, an entree, a meat product, fruit or veggie."
Shortages created by supply chain backups are the most recent headache. Some schools have been juggling the workload with fewer people.
"We are down about, almost 60 school nutrition staff who work in our kitchen," said Larry Wade, director of School Nutrition Services for Chesapeake Public Schools. "We're finding it hard to get people to come work for us."
Wade directs 45 school menus, food purchase plans, and staff rosters throughout Chesapeake's school system. That adds up to almost 20,000 school lunches and 14,000 breakfast meals each day. Flexibility has been the key to their success.
"With the pandemic, we've been serving meals out of the backdoors of school buses," Wade said. "We've taken meals to parks and have had families pick them up curbside. We're having problems in getting frozen foods. Some staples we can't get like some fruits and some vegetables. Despite that something might not come through the back door, we ensure that every student has a healthy and nutritious meal every single day."
Another challenge: food and labor shortages are forcing suppliers to pick and choose where they sell their food. Some have even canceled school contracts due to low-profit margins compared to big-box retailers, leaving students to suffer the cost.
"And that makes sense in the business world, they have to survive, and they are shorthanded," Hicks said.
While some students wait for the return of chocolate milk or chicken nuggets, schools have made due thanks to food donations and pandemic assistance. The Department of Agriculture is providing pandemic assistance, programs, and free meals to qualifying families through this school year. While Wade hopes these issues are resolved by the 2022-23 school year, he's hoping this assistance will remain in place just in case.
"It's challenging and we are prayerful it's going to be over soon," Wade said. "But our students are still our primary purpose and reason for being here."