116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Beef, chicken, breakfast pizza and waffles, bread, fruit and vegetables and paper products are just a few of the items Iowa school districts are struggling to get so they can provide varied and quality meals to students.
Schools are making changes to their breakfast and lunch menus “nearly weekly” to account for items that are delayed or unavailable, said Alison Demory, Iowa City schools’ nutrition services director.
“If we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we might feel a little better,” Demory said. “A few items might be available again in January, but we’re not sure. I’ve heard this isn’t going to go away any time soon.”
Schools across the country are scrambling to feed students with a continued shortage of cafeteria staples. Staffing shortages at food manufacturers and distributors are making it challenging to make and transport enough products to meet the demand, Demory said.
Some items can be ordered of a limited quantity only, which may not meet the needs of the Iowa City district serving 9,000 meals daily.
“If we can only order two cases of a product at a time, that’s a problem,” Demory said. “We have to work ahead over multiple weeks to order things in advance, so we have enough when the item comes up on the menu.”
Instead of providing individual bags of chips, the district is purchasing bulk orders and portioning them out to students, which requires more preparation, Demory said, giving an example of how the supply chain shortages can cause more work down the line.
“We’re doing all the work we can behind the scenes, so our families and students don’t notice, but it is a tremendous amount of work,” Demory said. “It requires a lot more work to source items to continue to have a compelling menu that kids want to come eat.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was “aware that some schools are experiencing challenges purchasing and obtaining food for their meal programs” around the nation and was taking action to help. In addition to devoting more money to buy commodities for the lunch programs, the USDA said it would not penalize schools if they can’t meet meal standards for now due to supply chain issues.
Cedar Rapids schools have had to substitute products but are able to offer similar items to “maintain the quality and integrity of our meals,” said Jennifer Hook, Cedar Rapids schools food and nutrition department manager.
Every week, more items are being temporarily discontinued as manufacturers struggle to obtain ingredients and manage staff shortages, said Ginny Scott, College Community director of nutritional services. Entire menu days have had to be switched until the next delivery can be made, Scott said.
Marion Independent, Mount Vernon and Clear Creek Amana are a few other local districts also having trouble getting products.
Clear Creek Amana still is “chasing the food supply chain,” adjusting menus to fit when food is available, said Laurie Haman, communication director.
“It is a big struggle for our food and nutrition director. I wish I could report that it had gotten better but it has not,” Haman said in an email.
When Mount Vernon schools puts in its weekly orders for food, items are often flagged as possibly not being available, said Greg Batenhorst, Mount Vernon superintendent.
"We are watching this carefully, and students and parents need to be prepared for changes to the menu with little notice depending on how the supply chain holds up,“ Batenhorst said.
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