The school nutrition staff that prepares lunch for students in Portland Public Schools recently tried to order about 15 food items from one of its distributors. Eight of them were out of stock.

The same thing is happening in Westbrook. One day, the food order that arrives is missing juice. The next day, it’s graham crackers.

At Falmouth schools, food service director Martha Poliquin is having trouble finding packaging and replacing metal utensils. She needs new pizza pans, but can’t find them anywhere.

“Every week, it’s something a little different that doesn’t seem to be in inventory somewhere,” she said.

All across the country, labor shortages and disruptions in the supply chain are leaving schools scrambling to adjust as they try to feed the army of children who returned to classrooms this fall. Manufacturers and distributors who were focused on supplying grocery stores and restaurants this summer are now struggling to make the shift to serving schools, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the nonprofit School Nutrition Association in Arlington, Virginia.

“It’s particularly challenging because of the labor shortage,” she said. “We’re hearing that food companies are struggling to get enough labor and raw ingredients to keep up with the demand for their products, and then distributors are struggling to get enough workers in the warehouse and truck drivers to get those items that are available out to the schools.”

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The association’s 2021 survey of school meal program directors found that 97 percent of the 1,368 directors surveyed nationwide are worried about supply chain disruptions, while 90 percent are concerned about shortages of staff to prepare and serve meals. School districts reported problems such as discontinued foods, shortages and late deliveries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued regulatory waivers so that schools can focus more on getting the supplies they need than on paperwork, Pratt-Heavner said. And on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $1.5 billion in funding for schools to address the problem.

Meanwhile, schools are coping by employing tactics such as rewriting and streamlining menus, using substitutions, stockpiling products and squeezing in a little wiggle room by putting in orders at least a week ahead.

School lunch on Friday at Congin Elementary School in Westbrook included pizza, cucumbers or carrots, applesauce and chocolate milk. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

Mary Emerson, school nutrition director for the Westbrook School District, started buying zucchini bread when banana bread was unavailable. If the elementary school can’t get chicken nuggets, she’ll substitute popcorn chicken. Poliquin switched from a whole grain mini baguette that Falmouth students loved to a whole wheat dinner roll from a different vendor, after the maker of the mini baguettes suddenly stopped producing them during the pandemic. Her online menus now come with a tongue-in-cheek tagline: “Menu subject to creativity.”

“If I see that a product is in stock, I will go ahead and buy it and then put it on the menu, which is probably what a lot of directors do,” Poliquin said. “But when we plan out a monthlong menu – what I’m making a decision about on Sept. 30 for the menu on Oct. 29 – we can’t necessarily tie up a lot of storage space in our freezers or walk-in refrigerators for something we’re not going to use for another month.”

Jane McLucas, food service director for the Portland Public Schools, is having trouble finding packaging for the after-school snack program.

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“We can’t find the lids for those containers, and we’re having to package in different packaging, and of course that’s taking more time,” she said. “Everything is kind of blowing up. We haven’t had to change a menu yet, but that’s coming. We’ve had to change brands of products that we’ve been using because they just aren’t available.”

Rayleigh Valente, 8, eats an apple with her lunch on Friday at Congin Elementary School in Westbrook. Disruptions in the supply chain and labor shortages mean that manufacturers and distributors who focused on supplying grocery stores and restaurants this summer are now struggling to make the shift to serving schools. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

One side effect of the shortages is that more schools are increasing their use of fresh, local foods instead of relying on canned, packaged or frozen goods that arrive by truck. Even in winter, Poliquin said, Maine farmers can provide storage products such as potatoes, squash, beets and onions. Doing business with them and other local producers, she said, “supports them and is, in some ways, a more reliable market right now because we’re not in competition with the entire country for items.”

“I’m going to be chatting with a poultry processor in the state here next week to find out what kind of relationship we might be able to develop there,” she said.

All of these glitches are coming at a time when there is more demand for school breakfast and lunch than ever. During the pandemic, the federal government made those meals free for all students through 2022, and last summer Maine became one of the first states to announce it will continue the practice in the 2022-23 school year and beyond.

Previously, about half the student body in Falmouth schools ate the breakfast and lunch provided, Poliquin said. Now that it’s free for everyone, participation has gone up to 60-70 percent, she said.

“Breakfast and lunch are free, and we’re hoping to serve more kids but we’re having a hard time getting food,” McLucas said of the Portland schools. “So there’s this big Catch-22. We have this opportunity that I never thought I would see in my career to feed kids for free, and we’re having struggles getting product and getting staff to make it.”

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Schools are having their own labor issues. McLucas is down several positions, and recently stepped in to serve lunch for 10 days when there wasn’t enough staff available. “I know of other directors who are out serving in their schools, working every day,” she said. “We just don’t have enough help.”

Falmouth is fully staffed but is looking to hire a couple of more people, at a rate ranging from $16.11 per hour to almost $20 an hour, to help meet the increased demand for school meals. Poliquin said applicants are few, and those who are applying have little, if any, food service experience.

But the nationwide labor shortage is most visible at the schools’ back doors, where food and supplies are delivered. Poliquin said her staff used to know the names of all the delivery drivers, and would even ask about their families on occasion. Now they see a different driver every week.

When deliveries are going to be late, some distributors are asking schools if they can pick up orders themselves, Poliquin said. She said she’s asked a manager to run out to Sysco in Westbrook to pick up an item that was going to be a day late for the school’s regular delivery.

The item schools seem to be the most worried about is milk. McLucas said “for us, milk is huge. We are required to offer milk with each meal.”

Twenty-nine school districts in York and Cumberland counties, which are part of a school nutrition purchasing cooperative, are working with Oakhurst Dairy, their designated milk provider, for example, to ensure the milk supply doesn’t get interrupted too badly because of a shortage of delivery drivers.

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Almudssir Marda, 8, a third-grader at the Congin Elementary School, eats a carrot that was part of his school lunch on Friday. School districts across the country have reported problems such as discontinued foods, shortages and late deliveries in their efforts to supply school lunches. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

“Because we offer so much milk, that’s not quite so easy to head down to Hannaford and pick up milk and pour that for 500 kids coming through the lunch line,” Poliquin said.

Emerson has told her employees to make sure they have an extra day’s worth of milk on hand, just in case. “We can store that,” she said, ” but storing a whole week’s worth, we can’t. But we can definitely do at least an extra day.”

Although supply chain issues are problematic for schools in Maine, school nutritionists say things are not as bad here as in other parts of the country, where some schools are being dropped altogether by their strapped distributors, “and I can’t imagine that,” McLucas said. “What do you do?”

“We need to watch it and be aware of it,” she said. “I told my staff to try to order an extra week out so we have an extra week of trying to find (scarce products), or finding a substitute that will work. You don’t want to stockpile things when other people need them, either.”


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