Beefing up the school-lunch menu
Amid supply chain shortages, schools find creative ways to serve approved student lunches
Last October the director of nutrition services for Louisa County Public Schools in Mineral, Va., approached high-school culinary arts teacher Ben Howell with a problem. The district’s supplier for rolls for chicken sandwiches and hamburgers was unable to provide the bread.
Howell explained to his culinary students that the country’s widespread supply chain disruptions had caused a shortage in their own cafeteria. He asked: Could they bake bread for the school? He said the class hesitated until one student spoke up, saying he’d noticed the change in the school lunches. “Why wouldn’t we do this?” the student asked. The class voted unanimously to take up the challenge.
For 10 days over the next three weeks, Howell’s students spent their 90-minute class period making about 300 rolls each day following a recipe approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We had some systems we had to work out,” Howell said. “On the third day, we were making really good progress.”
Supply chain woes have frustrated shoppers at grocery stores across the country, but families aren’t the only consumers affected. Schools have struggled to find the food needed to serve students, and their task is further complicated by federal nutrition standards they must meet. Although the USDA offered waivers on many meal requirements during the pandemic, feeding students has remained a challenge for schools. This month, the Biden administration released new guidelines meant to move schools back to stricter, Obama-era nutrition standards, but it acknowledged the transition would have to be gradual.
In a fall 2021 survey of more than 1,000 schools by the School Nutrition Association, 98 percent of schools said their programs struggled with shortages of menu items, supplies, and packaging, along with discontinued foods. Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the group, said specific menu item shortages vary by district, but many schools have faced a lack of “center-of-the-plate” foods such as chicken sandwiches or premade burritos.
During the pandemic, USDA waivers allowed schools to serve flavored low-fat milk or let parents or guardians pick up to-go meals for students. On Feb. 4, the USDA released its new transitional nutritional guidelines, set to begin taking effect this fall, allowing time for pandemic-related supply chain troubles to subside. These standards keep the relaxed requirement on flavored low-fat milk and add the stipulation that 80 percent or more of breads must be whole-grain. (Previous requirements called for 100 percent.)
Pratt-Heavner said the relaxed restrictions will give schools a break. When the nutrition standards were updated in 2012, for example, they demanded increasingly strict limits on sodium. But the transitional guidelines soften these tougher sodium restrictions. The USDA said it will release long-term nutrition standards in time for the 2024-2025 school year.
The School Nutrition Association and almost 2,000 other organizations, schools, and districts have asked that waivers be extended for another year due to continued supply chain problems. Congress has until June 30 to grant USDA authority to extend the waivers.
As of 2020, U.S. public schools served lunches to 22.4 million students each school day, with most students qualifying for free lunch. (A USDA waiver allowed schools to serve meals free of charge to all students during the pandemic.) An April 2021 Tufts University study said school lunches were the healthiest meals many students eat, and other studies have shown that nutrition can affect students’ education. As schools try to bridge the gap between students’ nutritional needs and food market options, some have had to be creative. One high-school agriculture class in Winona, Minn., grew lettuce through hydroponic gardening to supplement school salads.
Pratt-Heavner noted that schools have turned to local restaurants, grocery stores, and even farms to meet their food supply needs. “Over the last decade, we’ve seen a big growth in farm-to-school programs,” she said.
Federal and state grants also encourage schools to buy more local food. In December, the USDA announced
it would set aside $200 million for schools to pursue local food options. According to the agency, over 60,000 schools offered local food in 2019.
Karen Spangler, policy director at the National Farm to School Network, said the group works with organizations in all 50 states focusing on nutrition education, school gardening, and local options for school menu items. She said common barriers for local farmers include certification and food preparation. A smaller supplier such as a local farmer can have a harder time completing the Good Agricultural Practices certification process. Some farmers and schools may not have the equipment to process food for school meals. Spangler said a local partner that can process foods—for example, by making baby carrots out of farm-fresh carrots—can help.
Teacher Ben Howell said some students wanted his class to continue making rolls indefinitely. But while his students were glad they took on the breadmaking challenge, they were relieved when the school found a new supplier. Still, Howell won’t forget the experience: “It makes me extremely proud to see our young adults stepping up like this.”
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