If you’re wondering why your school doesn’t have Frosted Flakes one morning, or why pizza is being served instead of the usual chicken nuggets, blame a familiar culprit: labor issues along the supply chain.
School nutrition officials for the Gainesville and Hall County school districts said labor shortages among their manufacturers and suppliers are the main reasons certain foods are sometimes unavailable for breakfast or lunch.
“It has to do with production and labor,” said Penny Fowler, nutrition director for Gainesville City Schools. “They (the food distributors) send us letters and let us know that there are going to be shortages and what items are going to be shorted and when they’ll possibly be back in stock. Most of the letters that I've received have been based around labor.”
Fowler and others named two types of foods in particular: cereal and chicken.
“Cereal is a hot commodity,” Fowler said. “One of our schools may request Frosted Flakes and we turn in an order for Frosted Flakes, and the distributor will come back and say, ‘We don't have Frosted Flakes. How about Rice Krispies?’”
Officials for both districts said the food shortages are not major, but these on-the-fly swaps can cause extra stress for nutrition staff, who sometimes borrow foods from other schools.
“They're trying to keep up with their own food budget at their school,” said Sara Sheridan, nutrition coordinator for Hall County Schools. “They're trying to keep a good level of inventory on hand. They're trying to follow the menu, so I know it's very stressful for our managers, but I think they're doing a great job.”
Cheryl Jones, nutrition director for Hall County Schools, said they were short about 25 staff members at the start of the school year, though they now need about a dozen. Fowler said she could use an extra staff member at each of Gainesville’s eight schools.
Both school districts order the bulk of their food from U.S. Foods and Gordon Food Service, food distribution companies that act as middlemen between manufacturers and schools. Jones said they receive at least 80% of their food through the companies.
Certain cereal brands are sometimes unavailable not because cereal itself is in short supply. Rather, a greater demand for the single-serving cereal boxes purchased by schools overwhelms the production lines that make the smaller boxes.
Why the increase in demand? A possible explanation is that shortly after the coronavirus pandemic struck, school meals have been provided at no cost to students thanks to a waiver by the federal government.
“Suddenly you had schools offering no-cost breakfast and lunch to all students throughout the pandemic,” said Mark Schurman, spokesman for Gordon Food Service. “All of a sudden, everybody wants that small single-serving package. They've got to gear up … to produce more volume in that particular production line, and they may not have the capacity in that production line to meet the total demand.”
Chicken is a problem as well.
Sheridan said shortages of chicken products are industry wide and have been a constant problem for schools since the start of the pandemic.
Schools tend to use pre-made chicken products, Sheridan said, adding that it is more an issue of variety than an outright shortage.
“We don't really do raw chicken products per se,” she said. “We get finished chicken, like chicken tenders, chicken filets and chicken bites. … It may not be the exact brand we're supposed to get, but we are sent a different brand or a different flavor, like Asian glaze instead of buffalo.”
Schurman said COVID-19 protocols, especially social distancing, can dramatically reduce the output at chicken plants.
“If you looked in a cutting house for a poultry producer pre-COVID, you had all these workers and they were pretty much elbow to elbow,” he said. “Here comes COVID: ‘Oh, we need at least six feet between each person.’ You suddenly reduce the production throughput capacity of that line by 50%.”
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield says the pandemic has laid bare the fragile nature of the nation’s protein supply. He hopes to begin supplying a portion of the district’s animal protein through projects such as the Agribusiness Center, and the newly proposed Meat Processing Center, for which the district has requested $5 million in state funding.
He advocates for “a return to local.”
“I was talking to local poultry processors early in the summer and they were saying, ‘Expect there to be some major bumps with your protein supplies this year. The freezers are empty,’” Schofield said. “I am convinced that over the last 40 years with three multinational corporations handling roughly 70% of the nation's protein supply that what we're seeing right now is going to be a long-term trend.”
A return to local, he said, would also open up agribusiness career pathways for students, reduce food costs for the school district and provide a more profitable outlet for local meat suppliers.
“I would like to think a couple years into this thing, if we knew there was a supply chain issue and we were going to have a challenge for the next week or two, we could shift gears and pretty well fill the gap,” he said. “Certainly we can't do it indefinitely, but I think there'd be a lot of potential to produce an awful lot of ground beef and breakfast sausage.”
Sheridan said they usually receive a notice two days before delivery letting them know that a food item isn’t available. They will then request a different item or use something they have in their freezer.
“Our staff has been great the past few years,” she said. “They're very flexible, they're very knowledgeable. And they always figure out how to make it work.”
Still, while the kids don’t go hungry, they may miss out on their favorite foods, which Shurman suggested is at the heart of the issue when nutrition staff are grappling with food shortages.
“I think they're comfortable and confident that they're going to meet the nutritional needs,” he said. “But I do think they want to get back to a place where they're really serving the foodstuffs that they know that the kids most want.”