Westerville City School District is facing food service challenges due to product shortfalls, delivery delays and staffing shortages among food vendors and distributors.
The situation is not isolated to Westerville. Across the country, food service departments have reached a critical point as reported by news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and local print media.
In Westerville, the supply chain backlogs have resulted in a sluggish flow of products to school kitchens, leaving an inventory of food items lower than anticipated. In some cases, buildings have run out of stock for basics such as plates, burger patties, corn dogs, utensil kits, and many more items.
Staple foods such as chicken have become difficult to order and individually wrapped items such as mayonnaise packets are no longer available, causing the district’s food service department to find alternative solutions to provide food for all students.
“We are striving to minimize the impact on students given this amazing opportunity to feed all kids for free,” said Kari Dennis, director of Human Resources and Food Services.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) extended school meal benefits for the 2021-22 school year, making breakfast and lunch free of charge for all families.
The district is serving more meals than before the pandemic. Participation is up 21 percent compared to figures from 2019. This year, the district serves an average of 8,000 meals a day, reaching 60 percent of the district’s population — a record-high.
The district’s food service staff has had to adapt quickly to respond to the supply chain struggles.
In one instance, pizza orders at the elementaries had exceeded the supply available at the district’s satellite kitchen sites. The food service staff worked with two of its vendors — Pizza Hut and Jet’s Pizza — to order enough pizzas to meet the demand.
With the loss of mayonnaise packets, staff pre-portioned mayonnaise from tubs into condiment cups.
Single-use plates and plasticware are also in short supply. In one school, food service staff created plates from takeout containers to serve slices of pizza.
“The outages are at times providing hours of additional work to find appropriate replacement items,” Dennis said.
In addition, staff has been making menu adjustments daily in response to supply chain shortages.
Last week, for example, the district received an email from one of its food distributors about a shrinking supply of aluminum foil, a manufacturer suspending production of string cheese, and another delaying production of packaged baked goods.
“As manufacturers are facing labor and product shortages, we foresee this being a challenge for the remainder of the school year,” she said.
Dennis said the district has been fortunate to continue offering a variety of daily options for students, though the food service department may have to reduce choices if supply chain issues worsen. But the district is not at that point, she said.
“Even facing all of these issues, we are continuing to provide students with nutritionally balanced breakfast and lunch options that meet the USDA standards,” she said.