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Schools scramble to feed kids as supply chain issues persist

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Go to the grocery store these days and you're likely to see some empty shelves and find at least one item on your list is out of stock. Now imagine you're shopping to feed thousands of kindergartners. Deena Prichep reports on how school nutrition programs are scrambling to keep kids fed during the pandemic.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At Beverly Farms Elementary School in Potomac, Md., Friday is Pizza Day - or at least it used to be.

NOAH: They say they have it, but, like, all the time, it's not there.

PRICHEP: Noah Bochkis is in third grade.

NOAH: They usually substitute grilled cheese because they always have grilled cheese, and it tastes really bad.

PRICHEP: Admittedly, grilled cheese instead of pizza is not the worst thing, though Bochkis might disagree.

NOAH: I'm a very picky eater.

PRICHEP: But it's a small example of what continues to be a big problem.

DAN ELLNOR: At the beginning of the year, we had no bread. None. And then they only had hot dog buns available. And then they didn't have hamburger buns.

PRICHEP: Dan Ellnor runs School Nutrition Services in Louisville, Ky. They've had months where the cafeteria trays themselves didn't show up.

ELLNOR: We found some of those Styrofoam clamshells that we have to cut in half.

PRICHEP: School district employees delivered milk when the vendor nearly shut down.

ELLNOR: They lost their drivers because they got hired out from underneath of them. We had to deliver one of their routes for them.

PRICHEP: And then there's figuring out what to do with what actually does show up.

ELLNOR: We got two truckloads of frozen strawberry slices. You can't serve that curbside. And so we developed a strawberry muffin recipe. We've got a bakery.

PRICHEP: If this sounds exhausting, that's because it is. School districts usually bid on food orders nearly a year in advance, and now they have to call around to five different vendors because they can't get chicken or hand out frozen sandwiches when an entire kitchen staff is out sick with COVID. In a November survey by the School Nutrition Association, over 80% of districts reported disruptions like this.

Beth Wallace heads the group and oversees the School Nutrition Program in Denver, Colo. She says omicron has just made it worse.

BETH WALLACE: We typically have 450 employees. We are down a hundred employees in any given day.

PRICHEP: Even though the federal government has waived nutrition guidelines when pandemic problems keep schools from meeting standards, Wallace and her colleagues still want to give kids healthy meals. But this sort of resourcefulness comes at a cost.

WALLACE: And they may say, we have a substitute, but that's $12 more a case. Do you want it? Of course I want it. Give it to me. I need whatever you have you can give to me.

MIKE GASPER: You know, the higher reimbursement rates that we've been receiving so far have been a huge saving grace in all of this and keeping a lot of districts afloat.

PRICHEP: Mike Gasper is the nutrition director for schools in Holmen, Wis. The USDA has upped reimbursement and subsidized meals for all students during the pandemic, but it's not clear whether those programs are going to continue the money.

GASPER: If we run the deficit, has to be paid for through the fund that pays for books and teachers and tubas and bouncy balls in gym and everything else.

PRICHEP: Gasper's seen teachers come in during their prep periods to sub for lunchroom staff who are out sick, had kids in the agricultural program process cows when beef orders didn't come in because it's important.

GASPER: There's kids out there that need these meals, depend on these meals, and quite frankly, some of them go the whole weekend without eating one decent meal and can't wait to get back to school so they can eat again.

PRICHEP: Gasper, like school nutrition folks around the country, can't guarantee exactly what these kids might be eating next week, but a few things remain certain - kids need to eat to learn. And these supply chain problems aren't going away anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.