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School districts struggle to feed children because of supply chain shortage

Since the beginning of the school year, Parkland School District has struggled to provide hungry students with heaping hot meals.

That’s because three food vendors have canceled contracts since July, said Lori Seier, Parkland’s food service director. One of the vendors decided to stop delivering food the week before the school year started, breaking a contract that was supposed to go through the end of September.

Exacerbating the problem is that the number of children enrolled in Parkland’s free school lunch and breakfast program has increased.

“We have had quite a number of late nights losing sleep because we just weren’t sure where food was going to be coming from, especially at the beginning of the school year,” Seier said.

Parkland School District is one of many districts across the country dealing with meal supply issues due to problems with suppliers and manufacturers. In the nationwide supply chain slowdown, school cafeterias are the latest to be hit, leaving administrators scrambling to fill students’ plates. In July, the state Department of Education warned school leaders that issues related to food supply and costs would affect school meals.

“I’m going to Sam’s Club, I’m going to grocery stores, I’m going to the food depot — I’m going wherever I can to fill in for what I don’t get from the individuals that are now serving us,” said Susan Bahnick, Northern Lehigh’s food services director.

Bahnick said staples such as pizza and chicken are hard to find, as are most breakfast items, except English muffins and bagels.

Tyson, the top meat seller in the U.S., particularly of chicken, is having issues meeting demand due to a number of factors, including factory positions going unfilled and roosters not meeting breeding expectations, according to CNN.

Many schools rely on cereal for their breakfast programs, but the two top breakfast cereal companies, Kellogg’s and General Mills, are facing serious problems. More than 1,000 Kellogg’s employees are striking for better pay, benefits and working conditions. General Mills is facing increased labor, transport and supply-chain costs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Vlasics, East Penn’s food services director, said suppliers and purveyors of meal items for schools also have issues with shipping and trucking.

As a result, school districts have had to make their menus with limited options and often repeat meals. Vlasics said the district used to offer meal alternatives on a daily basis but can no longer do that.

“We’ve narrowed it down to just one item available for the students, which is a hardship for the students because they might not like what’s on the menu that day,” Vlasics said.

Instead of planning lunch menus a month in advance, some districts are only planning a week in advance. Districts have also increased the number of vendors they use or have had to change vendors.

Bahnick said Northern Lehigh used to do business with four vendors but now uses at least 16. Even so, some items are still hard to come by.

Seier said it’s not just food that is disrupting the normalcy of the school cafeteria. It’s a struggle to find dining items such as teaspoons and disposable trays.

Like with other school-related jobs, some districts are facing a lack of staffing in their food services department. Northern Lehigh is down to nine lunch staff out of 22 positions, Bahnick said. The district has been trying to fill those positions, but hasn’t had luck.

Parkland has seven open cafeteria positions, Seier said.

Some Lehigh Valley districts, such as Bethlehem Area, have yet to experience the food shortage.

“Some items may not be available at certain times, but it is not causing disruptions to service,” Superintendent Joseph Roy said.

He said the district maintains four days’ worth of meals at any given time and can replace items if one doesn’t come in.

Northampton Area is only experiencing minor issues, Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik said. However, he added, the district is concerned about what may happen in the coming weeks because of the issues with the supply chain.

For the districts dealing with the shortage, the end doesn’t seem near.

“I’m thinking we’re going to be facing these challenges through the entire year,” Seier said. “This is stuff that just doesn’t get fixed overnight.”

Morning Call reporter Leif Greiss can be reached at 610-679-4028 or lgreiss@mcall.com.

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