Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Food Fight: How two Texas school districts are working around the clock to make sure their students are fed

It’s hard not to notice the empty shelves that once held ample variety of cereal, produce, and other products during your weekly trip to the grocery store. A familiar sight for many, the product shortages have become a “new normal” since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These shortages have affected families all over the country—from automobiles to Applejacks, consumers are bearing the costs in more ways than one. Like families, Texas school districts are having to make the most of the already unfortunate COVID-19 predicament they find themselves in.

The supply chain struggle

Visualizing the abstract supply chain system may be daunting, but as COVID-19 has shown us, understanding the complex systems on which America is built is vital to understanding why and how our everyday life can be affected in times of change. By definition, a supply chain is the sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a commodity—in layman’s terms, the overarching system of pathways that help products go from the company producing the item to the consumer who purchases the item. Before COVID-19, the supply chain system worked silently—allowing Americans to purchase goods with the click of a button and have the product arrive on their doorstep in a matter of days. In early 2020, the coronavirus completely undermined the American supply chain.

As the coronavirus ravished heavily populated areas that serve as producers of imported goods to the United States, more and more workers creating/packing/shipping these products were becoming sick and quarantined, precautions were being put into place, and fewer goods were made available to consumers. With a depleted workforce, yet the same large demand for products, items quickly went out of stock, and shelves became empty. To make matters worse and back the supply chain up even further, the demand for goods grew larger than ever before. While people sat in their homes, unable to vacation or travel, many spent income that would have once gone toward fancy restaurant dinners and luxurious vacation spots on goods to improve their living space—the very goods not being produced due to this disruption. Even if the products were being manufactured, the barges used to transport the items sat for days, sometimes weeks, in the country’s ports as the manpower required to unload the items dwindled. This was a lose-lose situation in the eyes of companies, workers, consumers, and even school districts.

So many changes in such a short time

Like a well-oiled machine, Andrea Kilpper, food production manager for Round Rock ISD, works tirelessly to plan menus for the district, coordinate recipe development, and act as the vendor liaison for the department. Day in and day out, Kilpper manages what is served on students’ plates in Round Rock ISD. With the change in supply production, she often finds herself making daily changes to already-planned menus.

“A large portion of what I am currently doing on a daily basis is managing product disruptions and substitutions,” Kilpper says. “This involves determining appropriate substitutions, adjusting distribution sheets and schedules for our warehouse team, and communicating the changes to our cafeteria managers. We often don’t know what items from our order will fill until the day before the delivery arrives, so it really keeps me on my toes.”

Kilpper and Round Rock ISD aren’t the only ones facing this issue. David Lewis, director of food and nutrition for Arlington ISD, used to send the lunch menu out to students and families a month in advance, but he’s now lucky to send a full lunch menu for the upcoming week. For Lewis, increased communication has become the key to navigating shortages with Arlington’s 60-plus vendors.

“We meet with our vendors and manufacturers daily to talk with them about what they are no longer making, so we can have some substitutes,” Lewis says. “When a vendor doesn’t let you know they’re short and you’re expecting an order to come, and they cut half the product on [the order] and you don’t know it until you open the truck, that puts us in a difficult position.”

Open communication is important for Lewis and his team as they, like Kilpper and her team, make daily substitution plans due to lack of product.

“[This situation] has really revealed how interconnected everything is and how far ripple effects can extend when a link in the chain is broken or disrupted,” Kilpper says.

Flexibility saves the day

As the pandemic progressed into the summer of 2021, Lewis prepared for the school year to start in person. While getting ready for the year, he began to notice that products he had once ordered in shiploads were diminishing.

“In June, we started to realize, ‘Hey, this is going to be a very challenging year,’” Lewis says.

And a challenging year it has been. With rising prices on diminished supply, Lewis and his team have learned that flexibility is vital during these abnormal times—sometimes even coming into work on their days off.

“There have been days that we bring a shipment in on Saturday because a vendor says they can deliver it then,” Lewis says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have [lunch] trays on Monday. We’ll open up on Saturday and take it at any time we can get it.”

Kilpper agrees that some days being flexible is the only option her team has.

“[The shortages have] forced us to be flexible,” Kilpper says. “We thought we were flexible last year, but this is a whole different level of flexibility. It showed us what we are capable of when everyone comes together and brings their A-game to tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem. There is always a solution—sometimes it takes a different perspective to see it.”

The cost of normalcy

As schools moved back to full in-person learning, districts worked endlessly to provide some sense of normalcy among COVID-19 precautions. With the new addition of masks, hybrid learning opportunities, and social distancing, education has returned to the most “normal” it has been in over a year. In the cafeteria, however, things were far from normal and becoming competitive in a sense.

“All the school districts were competing for items and looking for items to simply distribute food,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to bring the students back into some kind of normalcy for them to prepare and to learn and to just bring that comfort level back to them, so we are trying to get back into normal operations to do that.”

Going back to normal does have its costs. Pre-pandemic, Arlington ISD paid 3 cents for a cutlery package—napkin, fork, and spoon included. Now, Lewis and his team pay 3 cents for a single fork. These changes may seem small, but they add up when paying for the millions of products the district needs to operate.

“We’re looking forward to the day where we do not receive a letter from a vendor or manufacturer that says, ‘We’re not going to ship you something or half your items aren’t going to come in or we didn’t raise your prices’—we’re just waiting for that one day,” Lewis says.

The financial costs are heavy for school districts as they foot the bill for necessities, but no cost is greater than the one Lewis thinks about regularly for the approximately 74% of students and families in Arlington ISD who receive free or reduced lunch.

“The bigger cost to me is when your parents and students can’t count on what you have on the menu each day,” Lewis says. “Those costs of uncertainty to your team and your community are much more challenging costs than just a higher cost [for] something that I have to purchase. When your families are counting on your menu as they do their grocery shopping, as they’re trying to plan for their meals at home, whether or not they need to send a meal with their student—you just leave a lot of challenges for them at the home.”

Adios, tamales

At Arlington ISD, students had about 16 entrée options on a regular day pre-COVID-19, with four to five different concept lines. Now, students are lucky to have three options to choose from.

“They see a lot less choice,” Lewis says. “There’s always going to be a choice, but way less choices for students.”

Every school year, the Arlington ISD food and nutrition department speaks with students to acquire feedback on the meals served throughout the semester. This year, students were curious about where their favorite items had gone.

“They continue to ask us for items that we simply just can’t get,” Lewis says. “For instance, we had a great tamale, a lot of students liked it, and the price of those went up $40 for a case.”

As manufacturers and vendors scramble to find a solution for large school district orders, many have resorted to changing their product recipes to make them easier to create.

“One of the favorite meals is our hot, spicy chicken,” Lewis says. “Well, the original hot and spicy chicken that they’ve had for years, the manufacturer has changed, so it is not the exact one that students have been getting.”

There is no doubt that students are feeling the effects of the supply chain shortages, whether in changed recipes or the complete loss of their favorite foods. Regardless, dining staff continue to do what they can to create as many options as possible.

“We will be able to provide a healthy, nutritious meal to every student—there’s no point which we are not going to be able to do that—but we need to be extremely transparent that there are challenges out there,” Lewis says. “There are a lot of challenges out there.”

Not invisible any longer

It goes without saying that the supply chain is no longer the invisible entity it once was. Americans all over the country are now well aware of the ups and downs consumers and producers alike will face in times of uncertainty like the past two years. Even the youngest students are seeing the impact of shortages at home and in the classroom.

“When we talk to them about supply chain issues, one of the first questions I’ll ask them is ‘Do you know what I mean when I say supply chain?’ and even our fourth graders will be able to say yes, and they’ll be able to tell me things that they’ve seen,” Lewis says.

Unfortunately, even with all the understanding, there is still anger over shortages that have challenged school staff who have no say in the matter. Kilpper calls on others to put these feelings aside and move forward with the dining staff.

“[We want others] to understand what we are facing and that we don’t have much control over what we are able to put on our menu at the moment,” she says. ‘We hope things will level out soon so we can bring some of the variety and more scratch-prepared items back to our menus.”


Author: Haley Weis