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Schools struggle to keep up with meals amid supply, labor problems

SALT LAKE CITY — Schools across the state are struggling to keep up with meals for students, the Utah State Board of Education said Tuesday, attributing the difficulty to supply chain problems and labor shortages.

“It’s kind of like a perfect storm,” said Kathleen Britton, the child nutrition program director at USBE. “The volume of meals has gone up — the labor shortages, the food supply chain shortages has just compounded the whole issue.”

But unlike restaurants and other businesses that can do things like raise the price on meals and shorten business hours, no matter how difficult it has become for schools to find food, food products, and workers, there is no getting around the need to provide meals for students across the state.

“The workload hasn’t changed and there’s less people doing it,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson at the Granite School District.

The district has a central kitchen and warehouse where they store and prepare nearly 44,000 meals for students at 90 schools every day.

“Kids are counting on breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and at their schools each and every day,” he said.

Even before USDA waivers made school lunches free, Horsley said more than 60% of their student population were already participating in the district’s reduced and free meals program.

But since the start of the pandemic, Granite has seen their nutrition team of 625 drop by about 200 employees, according to the USBE.

Horsley said it makes it even more difficult because they are competing with the private sector for workers – going up against companies like Amazon to fill positions in their warehouse.

And unlike businesses in other industries, Horsley said schools in the public sector are “limited on the amount of money that’s allocated to us to be able to attract and incentive employees that come work for us.”

“Our school lunch workers have been our frontline workers throughout the whole pandemic,” Britton said.

She said supply chain problems and labor shortages across the nation have put school districts in a tough spot, “but at the same time, they have done an incredible job improvising and making sure the children are still fed a well-balanced meal.”

Menus have taken a hit. Students and parents have seen meals frequently change because of supply issues and delayed orders. This has led to a limited selection of meals.

“School districts are doing an incredible job providing a balanced meal to these students,” Britton said. “It may not just be what they want or what they’ve gotten in the past.”

USBE urged those who are looking for a career in school nutrition to check their local school for employment opportunities.

According to a press release, “The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) Child Nutrition staff are working with school food service programs across the state and with partners throughout the country to understand challenges, provide support, and find solutions.  Additional resources to address these challenges are available through the School Nutrition Association, the Institute of Child Nutrition, and No Kid Hungry.”

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