Wisconsin schools find ways to keep kids fed amid pandemic shortages

Posted at 5:53 PM, Sep 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-28 18:53:17-04

MILWAUKEE — School districts across the state are facing a number of challenges in providing meals to students amid lingering effects of the pandemic.

Juda Schools Superintendent Traci Davis says they're feeding their kids every day, but menu changes are now fairly routine.

"We usually get about two days notice," she said. "It's not like we get here in the morning and we don't know [about a supply issue]. They're planning a couple of days ahead."

Davis said her suppliers, companies like Sysco, have been honest and upfront about labor and supply shortages on their end.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Instruction (DPI), the pandemic has led to nationwide supply chain and product shortages. In a letter for districts to issue to families, the Department of Instruction said:

"Due to unforeseen circumstances, last-minute menu changes and product substitutions may occur. Be assured meals will remain balanced, healthy, and plentiful. We ask for patience and understanding as we do our best to meet the needs of your children."

It's led Davis at times to lean on local restaurants, like Papa Murphy's Pizza. She said no matter what the substitute for an unavailable item -- whether it's noodles for mac and cheese or mini pancakes -- her staff must meet DPI meal nutrition guidelines, which are informed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That's an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy and limits of sodium, to name a few.

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West Allis-West Milwaukee School District Food Service Manager Steve Kosnar said it's been a bit of a challenge, but "so far so good."

He said his district has yet to make any major menu changes.

"If it's a schedule day for popcorn chicken, we might have to use a chicken nugget that day. Or we may have to use a different brand," he said.

On top of product shortages, staffing issues have made menu predictability a bit more challenging too.

A shortage of drivers, several districts say, means a delivery may come anytime between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and not necessarily in time for a planned meal.

According to the School Nutrition Association, the number one concern for school nutrition directors ahead of the new school year was supply chain disruptions.

And more than half of those surveyed, at 65 percent, named it a serious concern.

Kosnar said his suppliers believe positive changes may be on the way.

"They're hoping within a couple of months things will slowly get back to normal. We do what we do to feed the kids and we'll keep doing it," he said.

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