BOSTON — Schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere are facing unprecedented shortages of cafeteria food as supply-chain problems and a lack of truck drivers complicate the task of feeding students a nutritious breakfast and lunch.
Labor shortages have impacted food distributors and manufacturers who don’t have enough workers to drive trucks and stock warehouses. Meanwhile, the pandemic is exacerbating a shortage of truck drivers and other supply-chain workers.
While the impact of the ongoing issues doesn’t mean students are going without food, it has school lunch programs across the state scrambling behind the scenes to procure what they need to stock cafeterias.
“Due to national shortages of food and packaging materials, labor shortage and vendor delivery delays and cancellations, our menus are subject to change based on availability,” Gloucester Public Schools Food Service Director Martha Jo Fleming told parents at the beginning of the month. “Please know that our team is working hard to provide meals every day, adjust on the fly, and provide updates about menu changes as soon as possible.”
“We may need to make quick menu substitutions based upon what we have on hand, but we are trying our best to make comparable changes wherever possible.”
“Please stick with us through this challenging time,” she added.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the shortages have forced many school nutrition programs to get creative in their purchasing.
“It’s not like they don’t have anything to work with, it’s just that they don’t get what they want when they want it,” he said. “They’ve hade to adjust to what’s available.”
The federal government has been easing requirements to provide flexibility for school districts as they try to deal with this.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a waiver that prevents school meal programs from being financially penalized if shortages prevent them from meeting certain federal regulatory requirements.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent statement that the federal government is taking an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to helping schools.
He said the USDA is exploring other options for addressing supply-chain issues, such as emergency procurement and higher meal reimbursement rates.
Groups that advocate for school nutrition say the snarled supply chain is forcing many schools to find substitute menu items when their orders aren’t delivered, often turning to Costco and other retail outlets, which drives up overall costs.
“We’ve heard from schools all over the country that aren’t receiving the foods and supplies they ordered,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. “Schools are continuing to serve students healthy meals, but menus are more streamlined than the typical year, and we can expect substitutions until these supply chain issues are resolved.”
This is occurring as most school districts have been able to offer free breakfast and lunch for all students amid a massive influx of federal pandemic spending. That means more kids are getting their meals at school, which has increased the demand on school breakfast and lunch programs.
Newburyport school’s food service director Pam Kealey said the city’s sprawling school district has been able to navigate the problem.
“We’ve been very lucky to be able to move our program forward with very little interruption. Sometimes we have to change a meal one day to the other to replace a product that we were unable to get, but we’re doing OK,” she said.
“We’ve also been very lucky to be able to maintain the integrity of our pizza day,” she added. “That’s something that students care a lot about.”
Kealey said school cafeteria workers have become “unsung heroes” amid the challenges.
“They are the boots on the ground in every single school district in the state,” she said. “They’re the people who are working hard to prepare and supply nutritious meals for students in these challenging situations.”
Staff Writer Taylor Ann Bradford contributed to this story.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.