LIMA — Students heading back to school may not see some of their favorite lunch items, as school districts are making last-minute changes to their menus and purchasing alternative products amid supply chain problems that could persist through the new school year.
The shortages affect everything from portioned paper cups and ketchup packets to popular pizza and chicken products schools purchase in bulk.
Schools are quickly adapting to an uncertain supply chain that could take months to recover. And the situation has been made all the more complicated by school resumption plans, which mean schools will be feeding more children than they were at this time last year.
In the last week alone, Lima schools was shorted on an order of hot dogs, ketchup packets and Styrofoam trays, said Carrie Woodruff, food service director for Lima schools.
“You have to buy things in bulk, and then you’re trying to use the plastic to put those things in and those aren’t available either,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff stocked up on trays and basic supplies last spring in anticipation of supply chain problems. But she’s already seeing shortages of popular items like French fries, spicy chicken and pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
If the shortages persist, students should expect an ever-changing lunchroom: Instead of serving ketchup packets, schools may offer paper cups for students to fill with condiments.
Trays may be replaced with individually wrapped sandwiches or paper-bag lunches.
Lunch one day may consist of three different types of chicken: popcorn, nuggets or tenders. Or schools may serve stuffed-crust pizza and thin-crust pizza on the same day to ensure everyone gets fed when schools are unable to buy enough of a single product, said Sara Newland, food services director for Elida schools.
There are other dilemmas too, like what to serve children with food allergies when specialized food products are not available, or how to comply with federal nutrition standards when there are already shortages of the products schools would typically serve.
“It’s a challenge to meet those special diets,” Newland said. “So, if we aren’t having the same products, it changes their ingredients for our gluten-free diets or having the same product that we’ve always served for our students that count carbs for their diabetes.”
The disruption is also time-consuming: there’s additional paperwork for nutrition waivers; staff could spend hours cleaning trays when disposable trays are not in stock; and shopping for substitutions can be tedious when the alternatives are also sold out or in limited supply.
Still, parents should not see price increases unless their child buys an item a la carte, Newland said, as the USDA extended its free meals program for all students regardless of their ability to pay.