School meals are being impacted by supply chain issues, timeline for relief is unclear

Education

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Major supply chain issues are causing problems for school lunch programs nationwide and Virginia is no exception. 

Virginia’s School Nutrition Program Director Sandy Curwood said food manufacturers and distributors have been disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic. Now students are feeling the effects and the federal government is stepping in. 

Curwood said cafeteria staff are having to change menus last minute and slim down options.  She said schools aren’t getting their full food orders and they’re running out of certain items. They’re also coming up short on supplies like trays, utensils and condiments, according to Curwood. 

Some students at Swift Creek Elementary School in Chesterfield are taking notice, causing parents to start conversations on Facebook. 

Krista Burns, the mother of a Swift Creek Elementary kindergartner, isn’t sure what exactly is going on. 

“I think there is an abundance of students who are receiving the lunch and it may be affecting the amount of food that’s available to the students. That could be the cause of some substitutions that are coming in, the long lines and not enough time for the kiddos to eat,” Burns speculated. 

It’s true that more kids are relying on school meals right now as temporary pandemic policies are making them free for all students, according to Curwood. 

However, Curwood said a lack of labor to prepare the food, delivery delays and product shortages are what’s making it difficult to keep up with the increasing demand.

“It’s a universal challenge but it’s impacting divisions a little differently depending on whether they are urban, rural or suburban,” Curwood said. “It’s not just local to one area of Virginia or one state, it really is a national concern.”

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking action. Last week, the agency announced $1.5 billion in new funding would be distributed to help. 

Curwood said about a third of that will go towards the federal government’s USDA Foods program that underpins school nutrition but, in general, states are still awaiting guidance on how specifically it can be spent. She said it could potentially be used to address the rising cost of food and for staff recruitment bonuses. 

As for how much money Virginia will get and when that relief will come, Curwood said, “We don’t know for sure but we know it’s imminent. USDA and the state agencies are working really diligently to get those dollars out as quick as possible.” 

In the meantime, Curwood said schools are using some temporary solutions like partnering with local restaurants, shopping at big box stores and relying on the Farm to School program. 

“I think the opportunity exists now for folks to really recognize the importance of these school meals and to really to look at our food system,” Curwood said. “The more local that we can keep our food, I think the less the supply chain issues will impact us. So I think going forward that is really going to resonate with folks.”

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