DeKalb Middle School students recently had a new entrée on their lunch trays – sweet Thai chili chicken with fried rice.
The DeKalb Central Schools food service director called it a “wowza” of a dish and credited it to the continued inventory shortages, which have forced her department to be flexible and creative.
“And even more so, we are supported by our district in these changes,” Ashlee Shroyer said by email. “We are so lucky that our employees and administrators understand our struggle, and in turn they share that empathy with the public.”
Supply chain disruptions aren't new for schools. Food service directors encountered shortages last academic year as food manufacturers and the trucking industry were affected by illnesses and quarantines.
The challenge, however, has evolved from schools trying to order the same items, said Leeanne Koeneman of Northwest Allen County Schools.
“This year,” she said by email, “it seems to be extremely haphazard as to what might be out of stock.”
Pandemic supply chain disruptions topped school meal program directors' concerns for the 2021-22 academic year, according to a summer survey of 1,368 directors nationwide.
The School Nutrition Association found 97% of directors worried about such disruptions, with 65% describing it as a serious concern.
Dan Krleski, food service director at East Allen County Schools, doesn't anticipate a resolution soon.
“I do not believe there is a real solution to the food supply issue at the moment,” he said by email, “and I think for the foreseeable future we will continue to see supply issues.”
The national association commended the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sept. 15 waiver that prevents school meal programs from being penalized if shortages keep them from meeting certain regulatory requirements, according to a news release.
Beth Wallace, the association president, described the leniency as a huge relief because schools can focus on serving students nutritious meals without worrying about losing federal reimbursements.
Shroyer – the Indiana School Nutrition Association's northeast representative – stressed federal waivers aren't resulting in a free-for-all menu. Schools must still meet nutritional requirements, including those addressing whole grains, sodium and saturated fat, she said.
“The waivers allow us to take small steps away from what would be the original, hard and fast regulations, giving us wiggle room with what we can provide our students,” Shroyer said.
In northeast Indiana, school districts have alerted families menus are subject to last-minute changes, and they have sent notices when typical hot lunch alternatives, such as Uncrustables, are temporarily unavailable.
Finding substitute items is far more challenging than last academic year, Krleski said.
“I think we have all experienced a time when we were at a restaurant or even the grocery store, where the item we wanted was out of stock and you are forced to find the next best option,” Krleski said. “Similarly, this is what we are experiencing in our cafeterias.”
NACS struggles most with chicken items, potato products, eggs, yogurt and disposable items, said Koeneman, who also is president of the Indiana School Nutrition Association.
“Factories are unable to obtain a container in which to package an item,” she said. “Or, they are simply not manufacturing as many types of items.”
NACS, which has about 8,000 students, can spend two full days searching for substitutes, Koeneman said, and solutions can involve moving food from school to school to make everything work.
Her department has returned to making more items in-house, she said, including chicken and noodles, chicken and cheese quesadilla, grilled cheese, yeast rolls, muffins, chocolate cake and spaghetti.
“We are finding success in adding back more of our scratch items,” Koeneman said. “Our students are very happy with these items even though they do require additional time to prepare.”
Shortages at Fort Wayne Community Schools – which also has felt the strain of staffing shortages – vary weekly, said Rebecca Larson, nutrition services director. She said recent hard-to-get items included some types of pizza, chicken and juice.
“Our biggest struggle is with vendors not being able to supply appropriate products, such as whole grain items,” Larson said by email.
A purchasing agent works with the FWCS' registered dietitians and vendors to develop solutions, Larson said, and families can check the updated menus online.
The district, which has almost 30,000 students, serves several options in its middle and high schools, Larson said. Elementary students can select from a regular lunch item and vegetarian choice, she added.
“We feel that because we continue to provide several options in our schools,” Larson said, “even our 'picky eaters' have choices, and most would not go away hungry due to any menu changes.”
EACS, which has about 10,000 students, tries its best to meet the needs of the pickiest eaters, Krleski said, but that's challenging when the district's options are limited and factors are outside its control. The limitations are worrisome, especially for those students whose only good meal comes from school, he said.
“That is by far the biggest fear that keeps me up at night,” he said.
DeKalb Central Schools, which has about 3,500 students, is using general terms, like “chef's specialty” cold entrée, to avoid making menu promises it can't keep, Shroyer said.
“The last thing we want to do is disappoint students by menuing an Uncrustable that we cannot get in stock,” she said.
There is one item that keeps flowing.
“We have a steady inventory of milk,” Shroyer said. “It may not be the preferred flavor or percent fat the students wish they had, but they can have one with every meal.”