At the bottom of the breakfast and dinner menus at Montville Public Schools, the Director of Food Services includes a note: “menu subject to change”.
“Because there’s no guarantee that what I put on this menu is going to fit,” said Carol Dodson, who heads the school nutrition program for the five Montville public schools.
Supply chain disruptions impact her team’s ability to obtain certain food items and supplies. They face shortages in everything from the packaging they use for breakfasts to fruits and vegetables. Dodson reports that there are fewer plastic utensils and that French toast sticks are almost impossible to find.
“We have to be creative. Look in our freezers, see what we have on hand,” Dodson said. “I know our distributors, our manufacturers are working hard to provide us with what we need. It’s just a trickle down effect.”
Stonington schools face the same challenges.
“We all feel it in the same products,” said Becky Fowler, director of food services for Stonington Public Schools. “Random things, which are very popular with kids, that we just can’t get.”
Stonington and Montville said they both communicate regularly with their distributors.
“Most of the time, the distributor is bypassed by the manufacturer because the manufacturers have so many labor issues,” Fowler said.
Sometimes schools are offered replacement items, but they can only accept the replacement item if it is cost effective and fits their tight budgets.
What makes things more difficult for Stonington is the fact that they are also facing a labor shortage.
“Two of us are currently doing the work of four people and still do,” Wendianne Caraballo, who manages the kitchen at Deans Mill Elementary School. “It has been the most stressful first month of school.”
Caraballo said she enjoys her job and hopes more people will join her team.
In addition to labor supply and shortages, students are all entitled to free school meals this year. Demand is higher than in the past. Foodservice workers say they like to see more students enjoying their meals, but high demand associated with shortages makes it difficult.
“It’s a food shortage, a labor shortage, and we’re serving a lot more students,” Fowler said. “Hope they understand that we always have great food, it might be different from what the menu says.”
The US Department of Agriculture issued a series of waivers during the pandemic for school nutrition programs. If schools cannot meet certain meal design requirements due to supply chain disruptions, a recent federal waiver allows for flexibility.
As shortages persist, restaurant workers say their creativity saves them.
Stonington always cooked from scratch, but now they do it even more. On one occasion, they made their own muffins for breakfast in the morning instead of waiting for a shipment of prepackaged muffins.
The Montville team was receiving delayed lettuce deliveries. Now they get their lettuce from a farm down the street.
“We are doing our best. We are trying to feed the students the best we can with the meals they should be receiving,” Dodson said.