The Learning Curve: the literal food fight to keep students fed

The Learning Curve: the literal food fight to keep students fed

STARKE COUNTY, IN.-- Last week on the Learning Curve you learned what changes the USDA has made to nutritional food standards affecting school lunches for the upcoming school year.

“No pun intended, we're at the bottom of the food chain. So that's making it very difficult for us," said Lisa Abell, the Assistant Director for the Northern Indiana Education Services Center or NIESC.

As difficulties continue to mount, the systems in place to keep food on your child's plate are feeling the heat.

What happens when those systems are tested?

As the pandemic, supply chain and worker shortages are still affecting schools, the systems in place are learning how to adapt.

“Since the pandemic started, it's been a constant guessing game of what's going to happen next?" said Sarah Williams, one of the Directors of Food Service for NIESC helping Michiana schools like Knox Community Schools.

“All kinds of different things have happened to make it very challenging for us to put food on kids trays," said Abell.

There may not be mashed potatoes on the walls, but right now, there is a literal food fight to keep students fed.

“There for awhile it was like almost wrestling for food where we were like who’s going to get the food first because the bigger schools could get it type of thing. It was getting ugly because we’re all pulling from the same pool. And people didn’t understand they were like why not go with a different vender? Well it’s kind of like all the food is in a big heap and the vendors are pulling from it and were pulling from the same pool," said Kasey Clark, the Food Service Director for Knox Community Schools.

The status of stocked freezers and pantries is a daily game of wait and see.

Back in August of 2022, providing simple things like chicken nuggets and fresh lettuce became a game of wait and see.

“You would go in and play an on say chicken nuggets one day, and you couldn't get chicken nuggets of all things. You just couldn't get them," said Clark.

Those shortages of both food and products were still felt into the first week of February.

“Right now we have a shortage of hamburger. The USDA has told us they do not have enough hamburger to provide to all the schools. So we are improvising and using alternate choices. We tell our parents that this is our menu for the week subject to change. And a lot of days it does change unfortunately," said Dr. William Reichhart, Knox Community Schools superintendent.

Those shortages were even felt into the last week.

“Currently, breakfast items are very hard to get," said Williams.

“There's a lot of times we cannot get Styrofoam, or the disposable plates if we need them to serve the kids on. And especially sometimes when we're you know, short staffed because of COVID and things like that, we tend to lean towards those disposable items so we can get the kids fed. And sometimes, it's really hard to come by," said Clark.

When sudden item changes occur, who is helping to keep those trays full?

“Basically, helping everyone in the kitchens order the food, get food out to the kids and make sure everything is running smoothly," said Clark.

Kasey Clark has worked in Knox Community Schools for the last three eventful years where she has taken on the task of feeding kids both breakfast and lunch everyday.

“It’s gotten better over the last month or so but before that it was an absolute nightmare. We couldn’t get things in, we had to constantly change the menu, kids couldn’t prepare. Kids with allergies couldn’t prepare if to pack or not pack their lunch cause a lot of times we didn’t know what we were getting in to serve the kids," said Clark.

How does it work?

Getting food from venders to your school's kitchens?

At Knox, it's Clark who plans out the school's orders for the month.

Those are then sent to the middle man between the schools and the Northern Indiana Educational Services Center, or NIESC, where venders are found and orders are placed.

Food Service Directors like Sarah Williams follow the school's budget and USDA food standards to try and get the best food, for the best price.

Finally, the venders communicate with NIESC through directors like Lisa Abell.

“My role is to help schools save money in various areas that they need to make purchases," said Abell.

In Abell's 21 years in school services, she said schools have never been in this position.

“Schools funds have just gone kind of in the red," said Abell.

And the companies that schools are ordering food from, continue to raise prices.

“The pallets have gone up 400%, just to make a wood pallet. So all that cost is bundled into the cost of getting that food here," said Abell.

Those companies are also dealing with worker shortages.

“I think there's a lot of people that just chose not to work," said Abell. "Once the pandemic started, they decided they didn't need employment for whatever reason where they were at. And it's created this huge labor shortage. You need a body to drive that truck, you need a body to load that truck. And when those people aren't there, then we're not getting the items, we need to feed the children.”

An undertaking some venders refuse to bear any longer.

“Just recently, I got an email from my milk fenders saying that five districts were not going to get a certain kind of milk because they were running out of cartons," said Abell. “I'm sure the parents are probably beside themselves, and they probably think it's the school's fault or our fault. And it's really no one's fault. It's just, it's just the vicious cycle of the supply chain and how it's just falling apart. It's one of those things where you just keep hoping week by week, it gets better and better. And so far, we haven't seen a lot of relief. I think we have made baby steps. But we still have a ways to go.”

But what do you at home need to know?

Everyone, at every level of the chain is doing their best.

“We were barely getting by and now it's a lot better. There are a lot more options, but there's still room for improvement on getting everything that we're needing," said Clark.

“The wonderful school nutrition employees that have stuck with us and stayed here," said Clark. "It shows that they are real heroes. They are willing to do whatever it takes to feed the kids. They, you know, in districts I've worked in before and I'm sure and Knox as well, they've stood out by the curb in the snow and the rain, serving meals to families just to make sure that those kids get fed.”

Ultimately, kids are still being fed despite the obstacles.

It's all because of people waking up every morning with the mission to send your kids home fed and happy, no matter what.

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