Your public school kid’s lunch might be served on a pizza slice box. Here’s why

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For many public school districts now every meal, like this Mandarin Chicken at Compass Elementary in Kansas City is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt to source food.

Frank Morris/NPR


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Grennan Sims, director of Nutrition Services for the Hickman Mills school district in Kansas City is proud of the work she and her staff are doing to cobble together meals for the district’s 5,600 students.

Frank Morris/NPR


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Frank Morris/NPR

Grennan Sims, director of Nutrition Services for the Hickman Mills school district in Kansas City is proud of the work she and her staff are doing to cobble together meals for the district’s 5,600 students.

Frank Morris/NPR

Every meal cobbled together is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt

«If you think about when the world kind of shut down in March of 2020, and the months that came after that, and the empty shelves that were experienced, what people saw then is what we’re seeing now, but it’s just exponential,» Sims says.

Now every meal Sims and her staff cobble together is the culmination of a kind of treasure hunt for the district’s 5,600 students; a volunteer’s van load of chicken straight from a processing plant here, a box of donated utensils there, a new supplier gradually taking up part of the slack, but no certainty. And this is happening nationwide.

«We are hearing from schools all over the country that just aren’t receiving the foods and supplies that they ordered,» says Diane Pratt-Heavner, with the School Nutrition Association.

Pratt-Heavner says that some districts scrambling to feed kids are shopping at Costco, Sam’s Club or regional restaurant supply depots. And she says they’re paying more. Not necessarily more for identical items, but more money to fill in the gaps that they need to complete their menu. They can’t get the same products they have been using. For example, in Sims’ school district, she says the chicken she is able to source regularly has more than doubled in price.

Pratt-Heavner notes that most districts haven’t fully tallied costs, as they are kind of in survival mode.

«It’s been so fast and furious trying to reorder substitute items that they’re not even looking at the price, it’s more a matter of what can they get. They have to have trays or entrée items or fruits or vegetables they’re going to order whatever it takes,» Pratt-Heavner says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping to pick up the added costs. USDA is reimbursing districts for school meals at about 15% higher than the normal rate. It’s announced that another $1.5 billion in aid is forthcoming but hasn’t spelled out how that will be distributed. The agency is also easing regulations.

But Pratt-Heavner says she does not believe that the added money from USDA is covering all the additional costs that schools are carrying.

Meantime, the USDA hasn’t released dollar totals for exactly what all this is costing, partly because of the lag time in collecting information.

«We absolutely want schools to serve the most nutritious meals possible. And we believe they want that too, but we also believe that no school should be penalized if the truck doesn’t show up and they don’t have the fruit cup to put out that day,» says USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long.

There’s no relief in sight

Some districts may have fruit, but not the cup, or the five-compartment tray on which to serve it. Lori Drenth, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Hernando County School District in Florida says that that five-compartment tray was —until lately— the foundation of every meal. Normally the district goes through about 5 million of them annually, but this year Drenth is scrambling to find substitutes.

«I mean, seriously, I spend my days combing the internet for what can I put, what can I serve things, uh, menu items to students on,» Drenth says.

She’s getting by serving kids food on nacho bowl lids, pizza slice boxes, little deli meat trays and 9-inch Styrofoam plates. She says she’d like to go back to the reusable plastic trays many people remember from the school cafeteria, but even if she had the trays she doesn’t have extra people to clean them. Because in addition to the shortage of food and disposable serving products, Drenth, like many other school nutritionists, is dealing with a serious labor shortage of her own.

«There’s just an endless overcoming,» laments Drenth. «Whether it’s, you know, paper goods or staffing, or pay or, food, it can be exhausting.»

And there’s no relief in sight. Drenth and others expect that the nonstop chaos of cobbling together menus on the fly to continue at least through the end of the school year.

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