Alabama schools facing ‘unprecedented’ food shortage

Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 5:46 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Your child’s school lunch might look a little different right now. Supply chain issues and staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing schools to get creative to keep their students fed.

The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) says every district in the state is experiencing food supply shortages, affecting the nearly 687,000 children who depend on schools to provide nutritious meals.

“We’re just being creative and doing the best we can,” said Cayce Davis, Child Nutrition Director for Elmore County Schools.

Davis said basic food items like chicken and milk and utensils like plastic forks and trays are hard to come by right now.

“Every week, we receive a truck to supply the meals for the upcoming week. Last week 12 of our schools did not receive trucks,” Davis said. “Today, about an hour and a half ago, we received word that two more schools would not receive trucks. So since Wednesday, we’ve missed out on getting 14 trucks of food.”

Elmore County Schools, like many other schools across the state, have adapted to the situation.

“We’ve realigned our menu, changed what we’re planning for the next week, (and) tried to order product from different distributors,” Davis said.

“We’ve just tried to be creative and think outside the box. Actually, one of the trays we are using right now is a meat foam tray from the grocery store that they package meat on, but it’s great for kids to put their food items on and carry to the table.”

On top of issues with the food supply, there are also fewer truck drivers to deliver the food and child nutrition workers to staff cafeterias and school kitchens.

Davis predicted her child nutrition team is down 10-15% every day because of health or family issues.

Montgomery Public Schools are facing a similar challenge. MPS Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore said, “Last week, we kind of reached a crisis.”

Moore said their team worked all weekend and the latter part of last week to combat the food shortage they are experiencing. Moore said with the help of other vendors, they could get enough food for their students, at least for the time being.

“We were able to garner enough food to get us through the first part of this week,” Moore said. “We think we’ll start to have more deliveries starting to come in, in the middle of the week, and right now, it looks like we will be fine.”

“We are dealing with an impact that is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Dr. Michael Sibley, Director of Communications for the Alabama State Department of Education.

ALSDE said they are working daily with schools to combat the problem. Dr. Sibley said federal resources were made available so schools could hire more staff. Also, pay raises have been offered for child nutrition workers.

“To allow overtime for delivery of products that might be coming after hours or at unconventional times,” Sibley said.

Also, through United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidance, schools are being allowed more flexibility regarding what goes on a student’s plate.

“There’s a waiver that’s been okayed for local schools to change the menu up and maybe not provide all of the nutrients that were ordinarily on the plate, but some version of that is being provided,” Sibley said.

“We are giving school systems the flexibility to shift and change as needed as long as they are to the best of their ability providing school systems with adequate and nutritious meals, many students of which depend on during the course of the day,” Sibley went on to say.

“We’re going to feed the kids the best that we can possibly feed them, but now how long can we continue in this manner is one of the true concerns,” Davis said.

ALSDE said they do expect more assistance from the USDA soon. Sibley said USDA is mindful of the current situation and they are doing everything they can to help.

Schools are asking parents to be patient. Many schools can no longer follow a monthly menu but are instead posting (usually online or via Facebook) what meals are being offered a week in advance.

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