food shortages

Food Shortages, Pandemic Supply Chain Disruptions Create Challenges for Schools

Connecticut food services workers say creativity is saving them as they face food supply shortages.

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At the bottom of the breakfast and lunch menus for Montville Public Schools, the food services director includes a note: "menu subject to change."

"Because there is no guarantee that what I put on that menu is going to come in," said Carol Dodson, who leads the school nutrition program for Montville's five public schools.

Supply chain disruptions are impacting her team's ability to get certain food items and supplies. They are facing shortages in everything from the packaging they use for lunches to fruits and vegetables. Dodson reports that there are fewer plastic utensils and French toast sticks are nearly impossible to find.

"We have to be creative. Look in our freezers, see what we have on hand," said Dodson. "I know our distributors, our manufacturers are working hard to get us what we need. It's just a trickle effect."

Schools in Stonington are facing the same challenges.

"We are all feeling it in the same products," said Becky Fowler, director of food services for Stonington Public Schools. "Random things, that are very popular with the kids, that we just can't get."

Stonington and Montville said they both communicate with their distributors regularly.

"A majority of the time, the distributor gets shorted from the manufacturer because the manufacturers are having a lot of labor challenges," said Fowler.

Sometimes the schools are offered substitute items, but they can only take the substitute item if it is cost-effective and fits in their tight budgets.

Making the situation more difficult for Stonington is the fact that they are also facing a labor shortage of their own.

"Two of us are doing four people's jobs right now and still getting it done," Wendianne Caraballo, who manages the kitchen at Deans Mill Elementary School, said. "This has been the most stressful first month of school."

Caraballo said she loves her job and is hoping more people will join her team.

On top of the supply and labor shortages, students are all eligible for free school meals this year. The demand is higher than it has been in the past. The food service workers said they love seeing more students enjoy their meals, but the high demand paired with the shortages makes for a difficult situation.

"It's food shortage, labor shortage and we are serving a lot more students," said Fowler. "Hopefully they are understanding that we are still putting out great food, it just might be different than what the menu says."

The US Department of Agriculture has issued a series of waivers during the pandemic for school nutrition programs. If schools can't meet certain meal pattern requirements because of supply chain disruptions, a recent federal waiver allows for flexibility.

While the shortages persist, the food service workers said their creativity is saving them.

Stonington has always cooked from scratch, but now they are doing it even more. On one occasion, they baked their own muffins for breakfast in the morning instead of waiting for a shipment of pre-packaged muffins.

Montville's team was getting delayed shipments of lettuce. Now, they are getting their lettuce from a farm down the street.

"We are doing the best we can. We are trying to feed the students the best we can with the meals they should be receiving," said Dodson.

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