School food service departments get creative as supply chain issues impact meal planning

  • John Stark High School custodian Ben O’€™Donal opened up the cafeteria to show the empty racks in the storage area on Friday, November 5, 2021. Supply chain issues are causing problems everywhere in the U.S. this year, stemming from everything from a scarcity of haulers and transporters to scarcity of the materials, packaging and gas necessary for manufacturers to get their products to distributors. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The refridgerator in the John Stark High School cafeteria on Friday, November 5, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • John Stark High School custodian Ben O’Donal opened up the cafeteria refrigerator to show the empty space there on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/5/2021 4:11:35 PM

When John Stark Regional High School food service director Morgan Trahan places orders on Tuesdays and Fridays, she has come to expect that many products just won’t be available.

In fact, the inconsistency of available items, especially paper goods and chicken products, has led Trahan to start ordering two weeks in advance to make sure the school has what it needs for the menu.

“When I place my order, I place it and it comes back to me with a confirmation and I can see what I’m not going to get,” Trahan said. “Then I have to go in and re-shop again, what can I get?”

Supply chain issues are causing problems everywhere in the U.S. this year – from COVID tests, to automobiles and even chicken nuggets – stemming from a scarcity of haulers and transporters as well as a scarcity of the materials, packaging and fuel necessary for manufacturers to get their products to distributors. It’s a national problem that’s being noticed locally by New Hampshire’s school food service directors, who have the additional challenge of needing very specific products to comply with federal nutrition standards.

Economists say the nationwide supply chain problems are the result of struggles to return to pre-pandemic operations amid the lingering effects of pandemic-related changes that reduced production.

Trahan says she has never experienced a problem like this in her 25 years at John Stark. She figures the issue is compounded by the federal government’s universal free school meal initiative, which started during the pandemic, because schools are trying to order and prepare even more products than before.

“I am now planning my third week in November,” Trahan said. “I know my menu is solid for two weeks, but the freezers are packed to the door because you have to carry so much product on hand because you don’t know what you’re not going to get.”

Donna Reynolds, food service director for Concord schools, said her district has experienced similar shortages. Placing orders is a time consuming process, Reynolds said, when more of the menu items are out of stock than not.

“There are a lot of last-minute changes,” Reynolds said. “We are still feeding the kids every day, it’s just not always what’s on the menu.”

Chicken products and whole grain bread products like hamburger rolls are particularly hard to come by these days, according to area food service directors. Reynolds says Concord has had trouble getting whole grain breakfast items, individually-packaged cereals and frozen pizzas.

Reynolds said she wishes her department could solve the problem by cooking more of the needed items from scratch, but with such a small staff – two employees at each Concord elementary school who are responsible for breakfast, lunch and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program – there aren’t enough hours in the day to scratch-cook all the needed items.

Trahan also sees shortages with paper products used to serve the food, including disposable trays and paper food boats. Upon realizing the shortage was not ending, John Stark’s food department purchased reusable trays this fall, something they had avoided for a while because it requires an additional employee and four hours of work to wash them after meals for an already small staff.

While vendors do their best to offer substitutes for the shipments that aren’t available, Trahan said the last-minute substitutions that are made in the warehouse are sometimes unhelpful due to the specific nutrition requirements of a public school food department. Like one week when Trahan ordered pizzas for high school lunch and a substitution of mini pizza bagels showed up in the delivery truck. At a conference for New Hampshire school nutrition professionals in late October, Trahan heard an anecdote from another district where the food service director ordered a shipment of Asian-style chicken and sauce meals, and received a substitution of blueberries.

Reynolds said her vendors have been helpful in letting her know as soon as possible when the substitution doesn’t meet the school nutrition requirements. A USDA waiver this year that allows school districts more flexibility in the meal pattern requirements due to COVID-19 has been helpful in letting districts do their best with what’s available, Reynolds said. She added that within her New Hampshire buying group, which includes over 50 school districts, there is also a lot of collaboration to keep one another updated about items that are out of stock.

“Everybody is really trying to work together and piece it all together as best we can, and I feel like that is very helpful and important,” Reynolds said. “Everybody is trying to work together to solve the problem, so that’s a good feeling.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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