Snarled supply chain is leading to less-nutritious school meals

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Supply-chain disruptions, labor scarcity and stock shortages are making it difficult for some schools to meet nutrition requirements for student meals.

By Deena Shanker

Supply-chain disruptions are making it difficult for some schools to get food for student meals that meets U.S. nutrition requirements.

Labor scarcity and stock shortages throughout the food industry are leading to streamlining, which means that some foods are harder to find, said Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group that represents individuals and companies that work in the field. Items like whole grain muffins and low-sodium, whole grain tortillas, for instance, may not sell well enough for a food distributor to keep them stocked.

“Sometimes those specialty items that schools are purchasing are the first to go,” she said, adding that labor crunches at warehouses and in trucking further compounds the problem. “Even if the food is in the warehouse, they’re having trouble getting it to the school.”

The situation is forcing the government to temporarily relax requirements to comply with federal nutrition standards. That’s adding to the fallout from widespread food supply-chain problems -- from staffing shortfalls to commodity inflation to production challenges -- that have also left some supermarket shelves bare and restaurants scrambling to adjust operations.

Nearly all school meal program directors said they’re worried about continued pandemic supply-chain disruptions, the School Nutrition Association found in a survey released in July. About two-thirds called it a serious concern. The most common problems cited by participants included menu items being discontinued or not available in sufficient quantities, significantly higher costs and late deliveries.

Schools have been moving toward more-nutritious options since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required America’s schools to serve children plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limit added sugar and sodium in lunches. One recent study found that the quality of foods in schools had “improved significantly” by the 2017-2018 school year, more than other food sources. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued another waiver Sept. 15 to prevent penalties for schools if they cannot comply with the 2010 act because of supply-chain disruptions.

‘Very Creative’

The Tuscaloosa County School System in Alabama has sought waivers, including when whole grain hamburger buns were in short supply. Donette Worthy, ​​director of child nutrition for the schools, said food challenges have meant getting “very creative” with what’s available and staying in close touch with manufacturers. She and her staff are also working closely with the school nurses to make sure students with allergies can get the food they need. 

“We will run to the supermarket if we have to,” she said.

Colin Schwartz, deputy director of federal affairs for the food industry watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he supports the waiver program, but hopes the government will do more to support schools.

“The USDA is doing the best it can, but I think they could do better at providing technical assistance and best practices for the states for addressing concerns about how cumbersome waivers can be and helping schools figure out supply-chain issues,” he said. Schools also need more funding to help “build back the labor force and cover the increased cost of food and packaging.”

While Pratt-Heavner appreciates the USDA’s flexibility, she said it still adds to the workload of the already understaffed cafeterias. 

“It’s a lot of paperwork,” she said.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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