School lunch programs adapt after supply chain issues make impact

In a time when supply chain issues are creating shortages for school lunch programs nationwide, Holmes and Washington counties are having a vastly different experience with the effects felt by local school districts.

For Washington County, those impacts have been minimal.

“Mostly, we have seen a shortage of paper goods,” said Jiranda White, Director of Federal Programs for the Washington County School District. “The disposable student trays are typically out of stock, but we hope to get some more shipments in soon.”

Brandy Vaughn is Assistant Director of Chartwells, which is contracted by the county to provide food services. Vaughn credits the company’s resources and networking with the minimal impact.

“We are fortunate in that the company has a lot of resources if we need to fill a gap,” said Vaughn. “We have had to make some substitutions, such as using a different type of pizza crust than usual, but so far, we haven’t seen any real issues from the supply chain like is so common among other districts. We have not experienced a true shortage.”

Holmes County reports more of an impact, with School Superintendent Buddy Brown pointing to vendor issues such as warehouse labor shortages and a lack of truck drivers.

“They were having issues with having enough truck drivers and enough warehouse workers to pull the groceries,” said Brown. “We’ve had things happen like ordering 45 cases of chicken nuggets for Bonifay K-8 but instead receiving 30 cases of popcorn shrimp. We will certainly still serve the kids a nutritious meal, but sometimes that meal isn’t what was originally planned.”

Brown further noted that vendors are struggling to keep up with demand.

“Schools started up as suddenly as they shut down,” said Brown. “They went from little demand to schools being re-opened and having a high demand. Here in Holmes County, we have additionally seen a gradual increase in the number of students we are feeding. We have approximately 3,100 students in our lunch program now, compared to about 2,600 during this same time last year.”

Carmen Bush, Director of Federal Programs and Holmes County School District Assistant Superintendent says the issue was made easier to handle, thanks to a food purchasing cooperative the district belongs to, along with nearly 20 other counties. That cooperative serves as a “power buying” group that can help fill in the gaps.

“We’ve all been affected by this,” said Bush. “The cooperative helped us negotiate with a vendor for help on an emergency temporary basis, and we are fortunate to be able to utilize the USDA DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Thanks to that program, we are able to get USDA commodities and make substitutions that are actually a hit with the kids.”

An example of that substitution is serving students baked potatoes when the district ran out of French fries. 

“The kids loved it,” said Bush. “They certainly weren’t complaining, so that was a win. Despite all the challenges, our staff has done a great job of ensuring we are able to serve meals that meet the USDA nutritional requirements and are still appealing to students.”