In Vancouver Public Schools, cafeteria managers and food distributors are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Since the start of the 2021-22 school year, inconsistencies with distributors and unexpected shortages have led to last-minute menu changes and adjustments in standards on a regional level.
Those shortages are happening even as a temporary program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows for all students enrolled in public schools to receive free hot lunches on a daily basis through the current school year.
While critical for many families amid financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s led to considerable increases in the number of students in the lunch line each day.
“It’s challenging,” said Catherine van der Burgh, who works in nutrition services at Ogden Elementary School. “We’ll think we can get an item in, and then warehouses will have to tell us all of a sudden it’s gone.”
In previous years, van der Burgh said it’s typical for Ogden — a school of 564 students — to see around 350 students in the lunch line each day. This year, Ogden has started to see as many as 450-500 students each day.
As demand has increased, those in nutrition services at the district level have taken out waivers that allow them to provide alternative items in the event of a shortage. For example, when 100 percent whole grain items aren’t available, the district is authorized to provide either enriched grain or 50 percent whole grain for a limited number of days.
Van der Burgh said substitutions in the menu at Ogden are made almost daily. Anticipated lunch and breakfast menu items are presented online each day on the district’s website, where a pink banner pleads with viewers to understand that changes may be made frequently. The district also has a mobile application to view daily menu items.
While less than ideal, these switches have been a reality to start the 2021-22 school year, said Katy Bretanus, who oversees nutrition services for the district. Along with other districts, Vancouver Public Schools requests items each month that fulfill a variety of nutritional categories; things like grains, vegetables, fruits and protein.
Special items are also bid on once a year, which are often things like meat and meat alternatives. Those items, Bretanus said, have been among the most difficult for schools throughout the region to acquire in recent months.
“The shortages are widespread, it could be anything,” said Bretanus, who stepped into her position in October. “When I go to allocate what I would like for the following month, I’m shocked by how little is available.”
The majority of items that schools such as Ogden receive come from regional distributors like Portland-based companies such as Goody Man and United Salad and the Eugene, Ore.-based McDonald Wholesale. Frozen items from other distributors are typically saved in the event of a more serious shortage.
“Kitchen managers know the most important thing is to get students fed,” Bretanus said. “If we do encounter a full shortage, we have the USDA waivers and those items to fall back on.”
Van der Burgh noted that in recent weeks, the shortage has let up a bit. She credits Bretanus’ strong relationship with distributors as a reason for improving communication between schools and suppliers.
Though the lines at Ogden remain more packed than they ever have been, van der Burgh believes the district is on the tail end of what’s been a difficult few months.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.