School cafeterias adapt to food shortages amid supply chain backlog

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published November 9, 2021

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ROCHESTER/ROCHESTER HILLS/OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — Supply chain disruptions and delivery delays are complicating things for local school districts as they try to keep cafeterias running smoothly.

Scarcities of all kinds are common nowadays — affecting everything from paper products to the chicken nuggets and French toast sticks served at school.

Matt McDaniel, the executive director for business operations at Rochester Community Schools, said the shipping backlog has made obtaining products the district needs a struggle.

“Overall, it’s been a challenge for almost any item,” he said. “Chicken products and French toast sticks have been some that we’ve struggled with more recently, although we are starting to see those options coming back. Paper products are another place where we’ve had shortages, though we’ve been able to supplement with other vendors.”

Most recently, when a particular brand of French toast sticks served by RCS was unavailable, the district’s food distributor had to substitute with an alternative brand — which used similar, but different, ingredients.

“With these shortages, we do get substitutions quite often,” said McDaniel. “We are doing our best to prioritize like-for-like, so it has the same ingredients. … For the most part, we haven’t had to change too far from what we’ve expected.”

While eating a different brand of food may not be a big deal for most, for students with severe food allergies, it can mean a trip to the hospital, or worse.

To help keep students safe, Rochester Community Schools has made it a priority to communicate any changes to its menu in advance.

“A couple weeks ago, we ordered French toast sticks for breakfast, and I can’t remember if it is soy or wheat, but typically, one of those is not one of the allergens that our families have to concern themselves with (when eating the traditional brand they use). Unfortunately, the replacement product had both soy and wheat, so we reacted as quickly as we could,” McDaniel explained.

The evening before the French toast sticks were on the menu, the district sent an email to all of its elementary school families noting that the food service department would be serving a different brand of French toast sticks — which contained both soy and wheat allergens — for lunch the next day due to “a nationwide food supply chain issue.”

McDaniel said the district’s vendors do their best to provide RCS with the food it orders, but if there is a known shortage and they have a different product or substitute product, he admitted there are instances where RCS won’t find out until it actually receives the shipment.

“The French toast example is probably the shortest amount of time that we would have — the delivery was made on Wednesday, and they were set to go out the very next morning, so we sent an email out on a Wednesday night,” he said.

In an effort to limit menu disruptions, Rochester Community Schools has opted to reduce its menu choices for students this school year.

“We have amended our menus to offer two choices in elementary, rather than three, and we’ve also reduced choices at the secondary level, at our middle and high schools. We try to supplement those with some cold items,” McDaniel said.

At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made breakfast and lunch free for all students, and it has since extended that policy through the 2021-22 school year, making this year busier than ever for food service workers. In traditional years, students had to meet income requirements to be eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“When we look at pre-pandemic levels, we’re serving almost twice as much as we would have in the past,” McDaniel said. “That’s a great thing that every kid will receive a meal if they get in line and go through the lunch line — but there are challenges with food shortages.”

Thus far, the district has not run out of food at any of its cafeterias, but he said there have been times when food service employees have had to connect with third-party vendors to stock up on additional paper products.

“If we know there is a shortage or a concern, we’ll certainly utilize our third-party vendors to make sure that we can continue to feed kids,” he said.

McDaniel said the district is grateful for its food service staff.

“They are feeding kids at a greater rate than we ever have, in a more challenging time than ever, and we continue to prioritize it,” he said. “We are thankful our staff members are managing these challenges as best they can, being proactive and getting messages out to families so they can be informed of some of the issues as they come up. They are happy to come to work, they enjoy feeding the kids and they continue to make a positive impact in our schools.”

“We also want to thank our families who have really partnered with us during the supply chain interruption,” added Lori Grein, the district’s executive director of strategic communications and community relations.

Like many industries, the food service sector has seen a steep decline in workers and applicants amid COVID-19 — including at RCS.

“When we look at our work groups overall in Rochester, I would say food service is shorthanded, but — I would say — not to the degree of some of our other departments, like our custodians and our bus drivers,” McDaniel reported.

At press time, the district had a number of food service positions available — both part and full time — with new hire wages starting at $13, up to $17 per hour. Duties, which varied according to the school, might include light food prep, cashier service and serving students. Applicants can apply by completing an employee application at the food service office at the Rochester Community Schools Facilities and Operations Building at 1402 W. Hamlin in Rochester Hills.

For more information about the district’s food service department, contact the food service office at (248) 726-4618 or email focfoodservice@rochester.k12.mi.us.

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