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SmartSummit: Schools grapple with supply chain issues and other challenges as new year begins

The pandemic has forced schools to adapt in countless ways, including reinventing meal programs to ensure students have access to nutritious food whether they are learning from the classroom or the kitchen table. Last school year, as teachers transitioned to online instruction, school foodservice operators just as quickly shifted to serving grab-and-go meals and even delivering meals to students’ homes. As the 2021-22 school year begins, many schools are resuming in-person instruction and foodservice directors are facing new challenges brought on by supply chain disruptions that make menu planning difficult.

Two school nutrition experts spoke about the lessons learned during the 2020-21 school year and the challenges that lie ahead during SmartBrief’s Aug. 24 SmartSummit, “What’s on the menu for the 2021-22 school year?: Dealing with new and continuing challenges in K-12 foodservice” -- sponsored by Tetra Pak, J&J Snack Foods and Revolution Foods.

Applying lessons learned in SY 2020-21

Although schools implemented offsite meal options quickly after the pandemic forced schools to close last year, the shift took a major toll on meal participation. Many issues stemmed from breakdowns in communication, with both schools and families unsure of where to turn for the latest information.

Having district leaders be part of the conversation early on is key to making sure meal plans run smoothly, said Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit with 16 member districts across the US. 

Even heading into this school year, there are many schools and districts that aren’t sure how they’ll be serving meals this year, which could point to a need for more communication, Wilson said. Almost 66% of those who attended the webinar said their school or district will return to in-person meal service for the 2021-22 school year, while 3.6% said they will offer grab-and-go or delivery, 16.2% will offer a hybrid model and 14.4% are unsure, according to a live poll conducted during the event.

Wilson also pointed out the importance of schools communicating with families, and the issues that can arise when schools rely solely on the internet for communication, since not every family has reliable internet access.

“How else do you get communication out to all these parents? Some of the things we’ve learned were: First of all, community partnerships were absolutely essential. We needed partnerships and community groups that spoke a variety of languages...We needed to partner with the food banks and the local religious organizations and the places where people trusted the leadership as to what the information could be,” she said.

In addition to direct internet communications and community partnerships, Wilson said schools can use signs, flyers, text messaging and even social media. “We had a district that did a TikTok video,” she said.

Finding out which methods of communication work best can help lay the groundwork that will make any emergency meal plan transitions run more smoothly in the future. “We have a lot to learn, and I hope that we all sit down in the end and write a plan,” Wilson said.  “We need an emergency pandemic plan for the next time that this happens so we can feed people across this country in a much more efficient way.” 

Dealing with supply chain disruptions

Another major hurdle for schools this year is supply chain issues, which are making it difficult to find many food items that schools rely on. Some distributors are scaling back their school foodservice business and dropping deliveries to schools, according to recent reports.

Foodservice supply chains are feeling the pressure across the board due to shortages of workers and truck drivers. For suppliers that work with both schools and restaurants, the latter are a bigger business driver for most suppliers since restaurants give them a higher profit margin and consistently buy the same things from month to month.

By comparison, schools have to place orders a year in advance, and the tangled web of regulations for school meals requires a wide range of specific products that suppliers can’t sell to other customers if a school order falls through.

These issues are nothing new, but the pandemic shed a light on them by forcing suppliers to make choices about which clients they could continue to serve. “I really think that the pandemic has shown that we are not good to do business with,” Wilson said.

Almost 64% of those who attended the webinar said supply chain issues are a major concern for them this year, while 29.6% said they are somewhat of a concern and 6.5% said they are a minor concern. No one who participated in the live audience poll said supply chain issues were of no concern.

Boston Public Schools, which serves 54,000 students, recently received just 30 days notice that its longtime produce supplier would be closing, said Laura Benavidez, the district’s executive director for food and nutrition services.

Benavidez said she was able to find another supplier, but it was a scramble with the school year fast approaching, and her initial requests for proposals went unanswered.

Prices for food items have risen by as much as 30%, and pressure on the supply chain is forcing some manufacturers to discontinue certain products. All of these factors require schools to be more flexible in the way they plan meals and order food, but that will take a change from the top down, Benavidez and Wilson agreed.

Wilson said the Urban School Food Alliance has a few projects going where “we are really looking to redevelop a new federal business plan” around school food procurement.

New rules that allow for more flexibility in the way schools plan meals and purchase food would empower schools to be more “proactive instead of reactive to whatever is happening around us,” Benavidez said.

In the meantime, Benavidez said she is relying on creative solutions from her staff to ensure that schools will be ready to serve students this fall. “I have to give credit -- I have an amazing team that just has all these ideas of where we can go, what we can do, who we can work with,” she said. “There hasn’t been a shortage of people willing to help or people willing to share their ideas.” 

Leveling the playing field for the future with universal meals

Just as the pandemic exacerbated existing problems with how schools purchase food, it also brought increased attention to the issue of food insecurity and the need for permanent universal meals, the panelists said. Extended child nutrition waivers from the USDA will allow schools to continue serving free meals to all students through the end of the 2021-22 school year, but the need for nutritious meals provided at no cost is something that would continue to benefit students after the pandemic is over. 

In Boston, students in public schools qualify for meals at no cost through the Community Eligibility Program, but this process has to be renewed every four years. While the CEP gave Benavidez the peace of mind that BPS would immediately be able to provide free meals for students during the pandemic regardless of additional waivers, she said re-applying every four years is a burden she would like to see lifted.

Wilson agreed, pointing out that CEP is a step in the right direction, but the “school district still has to pick up the remaining cost, it isn’t universal.”

Continuing to fight for a federal program that is truly universal and makes school meals “just part of the school day,” is essential to taking the burden off of schools, but even more so to taking the burden off of students, Wilson said.

“We have a very wealthy country with the safest, most plentiful food supply in the world. And yet when we walk through a school door we tell a child, ‘we have to know your family income before you get food...This is ludicrous that we’ve done this and we haven’t been able to figure this out,” she said.

Current household income requirements for students to be eligible for free or reduced price school meals exclude many students who are food insecure, and the system has created a stigma around participation in free meal programs that causes even eligible students to not participate, Wilson said. Many students are self-conscious about being seen by their peers in a free lunch line, fearing they’ll be judged, she said, citing a report from Feeding America.

“Why do we put this stigma on kids and keep talking about ‘poor schools’? Let’s talk about good education. Let’s talk about...the fact that nutrition is important in all of our lives.”

To watch the event in its entirety and hear more insights from Wilson and Benavidez, access the SmartSummit on demand.

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