For some kids, it was chocolate chip cookies. For others, the slope joss. For Theresa Thomas, the coffee day is centered around a coffee cake.
Thomas says he will hurry as soon as the bell rings. Since her Los Angeles school luncheon was first served, the time had come for her to get a fluffy slice with the biggest hunk of brown sugar strusel. If Thomas is lucky, he says he’ll find the lunch woman who will let him pick that piece, even if it’s pressed back.
That’s when Thomas understood his call. “I wanted to be the lady who made the lunch [kids’] Day, “he told ABC News. For 14 years, Thomas has lived that dream in his old stomping ground – even in those days when Calvary City, California, in a frantic attempt to prepare his famous orange chicken, faded in the morning – the kids trampled on the cafeteria.
But in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, that ambiguity has turned into a two-year delirium due to school staff shortages and supply security issues.
Missing colleagues left and right – and in a constant struggle to combine menus from all the ingredients in the kitchen – Thomas called the last two years “chaos.”
“I try not to let stress get me down and I try to take it once every day,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it’s really hard, but we can do it – we have to do it, I should say.”
Thomas ’struggles at the front line reflect the enormous challenges school districts across the country have faced over the past two years in order to continue serving billions of meals to millions of children.
The challenges were fixed, school district officials say. Some cafeterias have been unable to fill babies’ trays with basic items such as milk, meat and multigrain products because supply chains have been crippled. They have long been under-staffed, unable to compete with the industry for food service workers. And now, they are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing food prices.
A source of leisure? The waiver of the epidemic-era Department of Agriculture, which has increased reimbursement rates and relaxed restrictive requirements for school cafeterias, is often the city’s largest restaurant.
But since Congress did not extend the waiver of its spending bill earlier this month, district officials are increasingly concerned about the ability to feed America’s youth.
To understand the impact of the epidemic on school cafeterias, look no further than what Daniel Buck, director of nutrition services at the Colorado Grille School, said was “the great UBR disaster of 2020.”
UBR – or, Ultimate Breakfast Round – is a food product that offers ubiquitous and USDA-approved nutritional value in school cafeterias, as well as staff-approved convenient pre-packaging, Buck told ABC News.
But after an ice storm in February 2021 wiped out a wealthy Texas factory, the UBR disappeared. For months, Buck said, they couldn’t get the product – a crazy, and even more expensive, pivot that left red ink on all menus that were planned a few months ago. More than a year later, they can’t get the same amount of distance as before, Buck said.
Still, the UBR was just a “coal mining canary,” Buck said.
In the last two years, school districts from Washington to Florida have experienced severe shortages of everything from dinner rolls to drumsticks. The truck is shown empty or not at all; Manufacturers have stopped producing less profitable school-designed product lines; Distributors have completely canceled the contract. In Wyoming, school officials were sent to the Sam’s Club hundreds of miles east to serve cups and dish soap. In Kentucky, officials began supplying milk themselves.
According to the USDA, 92% of school district cupboards were empty at some point during the epidemic.
Meanwhile, cafeterias – like other hospitality industries – have seen a journey into the so-called “great resignation,” Beth Wallace told ABC News.
According to the USDA, 73% of district staff faced shortages during the epidemic.
Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association and executive director of Jefferson County Public Schools in Denver, said virtually every third job in the 78,000-student district is vacant. Barriers are costly: They have tried everything from wage increases to referral stipends to sign bonuses, Wallace said.
Instead, Wallace said, employees choose industry jobs in places like Target or Amazon that pay better with more consistent hours. Burnout is local among those forced to relax, said Thomas in Calvary City.
Then, there is inflation.
As consumers have been hit by sticker shocks in grocery stores, schools have also been hit by dramatic price increases, more than a dozen nutrition officials told ABC News.
In Michigan, the price of tomato paste has risen by 30%. The price of plastic forks has risen by 50% in Colorado. Pineapple prices for Maine school have risen 120%.
Jean Reilly, director of nutrition at Windham Raymond, Maine, told ABC News that when cups of pineapple rose from 0. 0.20 to 44 0.44 for thousands of children, the numbers quickly increased.
Higher repayment rates, thanks to waivers, have provided a significant buffer in this cost increase – [they’ve] “It helped us stay black,” Riley said.
But when the waiver expires, the compensation will be reduced by up to 40%, Reilly said, adding that even the districts are being squeezed from all sides. Foods that lack a mandatory item like milk will not be paid at all.
For Grille, in Colorado, it’s thousands of dollars a day from the bottom line – some districts that already operate on razor-thin margins will find it hard to bear. (According to USDA, about 30% of districts are not already breaking up.)
Its effects are greater than the dollar and cents.
The districts are already “operating[d] Before the epidemic, Wallace said. But since school nutrition services are required by the USDA to become financially self-sufficient, they have to face a dark set of choices: buy cheap food; Reduce labor; Or cut out some food services altogether. Wallace and others say they fear that after decades of hard-fought progress, this could mean a step back in terms of food availability and nutritional quality.
“Taking away the flexibility from our school now … will send school and summer meal programs into complete disarray,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabeno, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, told ABC News.
The USDA told ABC News that tens of millions of children would lose their food during the school year if the waiver expires. According to the School Nutrition Association, more than a billion foods could be lost. Should school meal programs be pruned or shutter operated, the numbers will still be much higher.
It would be “a terrible and catastrophic turn of events for families trying to recover from the epidemic,” Reilly said.
“And the children of this country will suffer,” he added.
Anne Flaherty of ABC News contributed to this report.