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Schools adapt menus based on shortages

You think you’re having trouble finding your favorite items in the grocery store?

Try multiplying that shortage by 400.

Supply chain issues are hitting school cafeterias around the state.

Local food service directors are adapting menus by the day and, in some cases, the cost for staples such as pizza or fan-favorite chicken nuggets are on the rise.

“Our food service team put their orders in early on a Monday morning and then they get notified of stuff that’s in stock and not in stock,” Lehighton Area School District Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said. “So they really don’t know until they put the order in exactly what they don’t have, but they do have a plan in place where they have a backup from another vendor that they use to try and get food that they need. One of the things I know that’s becoming more difficult to get is chicken products.”

Lehighton is one of several local districts that use the Nutrition Group to manage its food service operations.

Tamaqua Area School District, which also uses the Nutrition Group, said it is making do with the products it gets in.

“We are changing the menu a lot with a lot of the supply and demand issues,” said Vicky Stahr, the company’s regional manager for Tamaqua.

Stahr said that one of the biggest problems right now is a paper shortage. Unavailable food items, however, changes frequently.

“It comes in waves,” Stahr added. “One week we can’t get pizza shells, another week we can’t get chicken. Some cold cuts are out. It just depends what week it is. We’ve been holding our own. We’re able to sub out the menus, we’re only posting them weekly at this time. That way nobody gets upset if we have to change the menu.”

Stahr said it’s a nationwide issue.

“We get our list of shortages every day. And then we work around our menus to change them up with what they tell us they do have, versus what they don’t. We are feeding them; we are offering them choices and they seem to be happy. It’s going as well as expected at this point.”

Putting out menus a week at a time, instead of monthly, is also a change that has been made in Jim Thorpe Area School District.

“That helps us adapt based on what’s available and what’s not available,” Jim Thorpe Superintendent John Rushefski said. “Obviously, pre-COVID, we were able to have a good idea what was going to happen on a particular day. We’ve had to adapt and we go week by week now based on what’s available. There may be a handful of times where we swapped out one main entree for another main entree, but it really has not hit the Jim Thorpe Area School District in a bad way as maybe others schools have experienced.”

The same cannot be said in Northern Lehigh School District, which noticed a significant change right out of the gate.

“From the start of school it took six weeks to get our first delivery,” said Sue Bahnick, food service director. “The vendor we had contracted to service us for this school year canceled the contract and would not deliver to us.”

That forced Northern Lehigh to find an alternative provider.

“The pricing is significantly more expensive, but we have no choice,” Bahnick said. “When the truck comes in we never know if you’re going to get all your stock or not.”

Northern Lehigh has been using Sam’s Club, the Restaurant Depot, the Restaurant store, Weis Supermarkets, Thomson’s Meat Market and others for purchases when it can.

After the initial COVID-19 wave, Northern Lehigh had a significant amount of food service staff that either retired or didn’t come back.

“Staffing has been a real problem,” Bahnick said. “I have never experienced this in the 35 years I have been in food service. I hope to see change soon, but according to what we hear, they expect this to be a problem for some time to come.”

Finding products hasn’t been the only challenge facing districts.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education warned of potential supply chain issues this summer in a letter to education officials around the state. PDE Secretary Noe Ortega cited staffing and labor shortages, and rising costs of materials and transportation, hitting the food manufacturing and distributing industry.

“As a result, please prepare for food service budgets to continue to rise throughout this school year, as school nutrition directors may be forced to pay higher than normal costs to obtain the foods necessary to provide a meal that meets the requirements of the federal school nutrition programs,” Ortega said.

Students can receive free breakfast and lunch meals again this year through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Seamless Summer Option. Additional federal waivers are providing higher reimbursement rates this school year for those meals, which help offset higher food and labor costs.

For the 2021-22 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made waivers available relating to the nutritional content of meals served.

“Food and Nutrition Service is committed to supporting schools in serving the most nutritious meals possible this school year, and expects schools to meet meal pattern requirements to the greatest extent possible,” said Sarah Smith-Holmes, director of the FNS program monitoring and operational support division. “However, FNS understands schools are concerned about their ability to meet the meal pattern requirements due to supply chain constraints, and we encourage state agencies to use this flexibility when there is a supply chain disruption due to COVID-19.”

Palmerton Area School District Business Manager Ryan Kish said costs for certain products have “certainly gone up” as they have become harder to find.

“Some of the perishables we have been receiving have been spoiling rather quickly due to the supply chain disruptions,” Kish said. “Quality has also taken a hit because of that. Our goal is always to provide a healthy, nutritious, and great-tasting lunch to our students, and while we still are doing that, we have had to make some modifications from our menus based on the availability of certain foods.”

Still, Palmerton, which uses Metz Culinary Management, is optimistic about its ability to weather the storm.

“There are specific items that are hard to come by, but we are getting substitutions in or changing up the menu for that day,” said Rose Levan, Palmerton food service director. “Some paper products like serving trays, plastic dinnerware, napkins and straws are sometimes out of stock but we pull from schools that have product they can spare until we are able to get that product in.”

Tom Williams, left, serves Jaxson Strauss lunch at Lehighton Area High School on Friday. Districts around the area have been forced to be flexible with their menus as supply chain issues impact inventory. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS