Supply chain problems have been top-of-mind this fall for many Americans – from building contractors to restaurants of all types. For school nutrition programs across the country there have very serious challenges: late deliveries, no deliveries, substitutions and mislabeled products, like cases of frozen blueberries instead of pizzas!
During this fall’s many disruptions, Montana school nutrition professionals have continued doing what they do best: Feeding kids well under difficult circumstances. They did it through months of emergency COVID meals served curbside in all types of weather and they are getting it done now. However, many school nutrition leaders believe that this year is more difficult than last because of supply and demand issues. More school meals are being served with fewer staff, as well as food, paper product and equipment shortages.
There is good news. All K-12 students in the U.S. are eligible for healthy school meals at no cost during SY 2021-22. Participation has risen substantially in Montana schools, doubling in Whitefish, for example. Montana School Nutrition Association directors always want to feed as many students as possible, but, like many in food service, they are struggling to find people to do the work. Belgrade is currently at 70 percent of its usual staffing, and Bozeman schools have switched from hot lunches to sack lunches in elementary buildings due to worker shortages.
Preparing more meals – especially the scratch made items that students love – with fewer workers is a serious challenge by itself. Add on the fact that many items – including customer favorites like pizza and chicken strips – are in short supply and sometimes missing entirely from deliveries. However, school nutrition programs are known for their creativity! Belgrade schools have had to be very flexible with their menu offerings as they also face increased costs.
As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, Oct. 11-15, it’s important to remember that Montana school nutrition heroes go the extra mile every day. They go to work on a Monday holiday to take a delivery that cannot wait until Tuesday. They go in on a weekend to check a freezer alarm. They have searched Montana communities to partner with local farmers, ranchers, bakers, chefs, stores and restaurants – helping local agricultural producers and food businesses survive during hard times. This means that homemade soups, and grab-and-go salads, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, are still on Montana school menus.
Rather than complaining about school lunch, take a few minutes to support school nutrition professionals by recognizing that they are doing the best they can, with what they have, in very difficult situations. If you are in a school, take a few minutes to hand out meals at a breakfast cart or to wipe down tables between classes in the cafeteria. A simple thanks can also do wonders. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. Handmade cards from students are always in style. Thank you cards from USDA Team Nutrition are easy to download and send or print out at https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials
Tammy Wham is president of the Montana School Nutrition Association, Virginia Lee Mermel represents the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, and Dayle Hayes is with School Meals That Rock.