MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Supply chain issues continued impacting school districts across the Tampa Bay area. Many are having to get creative to get kids the nutritious meals they count on every day.
In Manatee County, the school year started off with staffing shortages. Now they’re dealing with that challenge along with food shortages tied to the ongoing supply chain crisis we’re seeing nationwide.
“We have never really seen anything like this. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, there were some little blips here and there, but not like what we are facing currently,” said Director of Food and Nutrition Services at the School District of Manatee County Regina Thoma.
Thoma says her team is jumping through hoops to make sure students receive all of their meals every day.
“Our dietitians are making menu substitutions and trying to make sure that we meet all the meal patterns and all of the federal requirements. Unfortunately, sometimes the things the students look forward to may not be available and there is a lot of disappointment coming from the students,” she explained.
Last week, the school district was about 20 percent short in the number of cases it expected to receive to feed tens of thousands of students across the county. This week, Thoma estimated they’re probably between 30-40 percent short.
USDA waivers have allowed the district to feed all students free of charge this year and last. In ‘normal times’, Thoma says over 65 percent of their students receive either free or reduced meal benefits.
“We know there are a lot of students out there that rely on the school meals and come to school hungry. We have to make sure that every day we are doing our best despite the supply chain to make sure that they are able to receive their school meals,” she explained.
In Sarasota County, district officials are facing similar challenges to meet the needs of the children they serve daily.
“We are getting food but a lot of our food is having to be substituted for different things,” said Sara Dan who is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Sarasota County Schools. “It is definitely unprecedented. It is a little challenging. Last year, when some of that stuff would happen, it definitely wasn’t to this scale,” she explained.
The school district is taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to make sure the food services remain as seamless as possible.
Some employees are even taking trips to wholesale stores like Sam’s Club and Costco to make sure their cafeterias remain stocked up.
“Here, we have always kind of had the philosophy of ‘we will do whatever it takes’. If I need to wash dishes, we wash dishes because we definitely want to support the team. If you would have said that we would buy every single ‘Uncrustables’ at Sam’s a couple weeks ago which is what happened or we would be ordering Goldfish from Sam’s, I would not have thought that,” said Dan.
Gordon Food Service works closely with the school district in Sarasota County. A spokesperson sent us the following statement in regards to the supply chain challenges
“Virtually every industry has been experiencing supply chain issues and food service and the broader food supply chain is no exception. This has included both food and non-food products.
A dramatic increase in overall consumer demand (which began accelerating in early summer with the rise in vaccination rates and people returning to eating away from home), has exceeded many producers’ near-term capacity. With schools offering no-cost breakfast and lunch to all students during the pandemic, we saw a further and significant added food service demand as kids returned to classrooms and college campuses across the US this fall. Coupled with reduced production capacity among suppliers owing to Covid workplace considerations (social distancing, absenteeism, etc.) and exacerbated by tight transportation capacity among freight haulers, conditions have been very challenging.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve focused on working closely with customers to address these issues, including identifying appropriate product alternatives or helping redesign elements of the menu. We’re also actively searching for additional qualified suppliers and expanding alternative solutions wherever possible. The resiliency and resourcefulness of our people and our customers have been remarkable, and school administrators and staff have been great partners as we work together to sort through these near-term issues. Our industry, like others, certainly looks forward to returning to more normal conditions and we’re hopeful that will begin to be evident by the second half of 2022.”Gordon Food Service Spokesperson