Schools face new crisis as supply-chain issues, labor shortages make serving lunches a struggle

CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — Amid many school districts returning to in-person learning, from school bus drivers to school lunches, many are experiencing shortages.

COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains globally. It’s also made it hard to harvest, package and ship food consistently — which affect thousands of children who depend on schools to provide nutritious meals.

School officials have been forced to find creative ways to feed students adequately.

The Urban School Food Alliance, which represents 17 large districts across the country, said they’ve had to resort to only serving handheld foods because they don’t have paper plates or cutlery.

On top of issues with the food supply, there are also fewer truck drivers to deliver the food and child nutrition workers to staff cafeterias and school kitchens. In addition, the nationwide stainless steel shortage has impacted some schools which don’t have the kitchen equipment they need.

Meanwhile, some school districts said they hadn’t seen a food delivery truck since August, which leads parents to worry that their students aren’t receiving healthy and nutritious meals at school.

Urban School Food Alliance Executive Director Dr. Katie Wilson told NewsNation some of the supply chain concerns the districts she works with have been seeing start with “the lack of labor.”

“There’s a lack of labor in the warehouses of food distribution centers, the lack of truck drivers to get [food] to the schools; so, it really starts there,” Wilson said. “What we saw, beginning this summer, were these large food distribution centers started to cancel school nutrition contracts across the country because they just don’t have the people there to pull the product and get it on the truck and then to get it to the school.”

The problems have been building for a long time, according to experts and child nutrition workers — and although some districts are trying pay raises and partnerships with local farmers, solutions may take a while to arrive.

“The USDA is who we are under, who governs this national school lunch program; they’re very aware of it. They’ve become very proactive. The secretary just announced a very large amount of money last week that he’s going to put towards these programs, but we have to have patients,” Wilson explained. “It’s the system; in a country as large as ours, it’s going to take some time to get this system rolling.”

So far, no school has had to close because of an inability to serve meals — but the time spent finding ways to serve more kids with fewer resources has taken a toll on child nutrition programs.

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