ON SHORT SUPPLY: Nationwide supply difficulties force cafeteria staff to make difficult choices

Aimee Liu | The Chronicle

Rachel Tilford serves food from the kitchen to support the students of MHS.

Choosing an entree and two fruits or vegetables is all it takes to receive a free lunch at Mason High School. The task of providing students with these well-balanced lunches at no charge has been increasingly difficult for Mason’s nutrition department.

Across the nation, schools have experienced issues providing affordable lunches for students while still maintaining nutritional standards. A national labor shortage fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic–a lack of production line workers and delivery truck drivers–has led to a supply chain crisis, increasing the difficulty of the task of feeding thousands of children daily.

Rachel Tilford, the Child Nutrition Supervisor for Mason City Schools (MCS), said she has felt several effects of this economic turmoil. Tilford oversees the effort of providing students with their lunches, from working with food distributors to preparing food to serving it in lunch lines. MCS relies primarily on Sysco food service in Cincinnati for their supplies, but due to the national circumstances, Tilford said the company has had many issues efficiently distributing their supplies.

“From just one order, there is a whole list of out-of-stocks, and we get three deliveries a week,” Tilford said. “We’re having a hard time getting a lot of our items. It does cause a headache; we’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops.”

In recent times, Sysco has often lacked necessary items like certain food products or disposable paper food trays. As a result, Tilford said she has had to turn to other distributors, complicating the process of getting lunches served.

“We’ve had to order from Amazon and find online suppliers to help us find [certain] items,” Tilford said. Specific items include hamburger patties, which are manufactured by a company that, according to Tilford, “lost about 40% of their staff,” leading them to “stop making certain products.” Therefore, Tilford said that MCS has had to find another supplier for their hamburgers.

MCS Child Nutrition Assistant Supervisor Janelle Brunswick spends much of her time working with representatives from different food distributors to attain the items needed to get food onto trays. Since distributors often do not have everything Brunswick needs, she has had to work with several companies and settle for what distributors do have in stock.

“There’s a paper, plastic and foam shortage right now so food items may come in different containers,” Brunswick said. “This week it might be in a food tray, but next week in a bowl and the next in a plastic container.”

There has also been a shortage of regular reusable plastic trays. Coupled with a labor shortage in the dish room that has made it difficult to keep up with cleaning, the nutrition department has been forced to use weaker disposable foam trays. This adaptation with trays reflects the general efforts that Tilford and Brunswick have had to make this year. Tilford said the various shortages they have experienced have required quick adjustments and alternatives.

“If we can’t get what we’re looking for, we just have to make easy fixes and find something else,” Tilford said. “The day before orders come, we’ll find out all the things that are not coming on it and we look at what’s going to be a problem. If there’s something coming up on the menu that’s on the list, we work to try to find a substitute item.”

Substitutions that Tilford and Brunswick have had to make include chicken nuggets instead of tenders and turkey sausage patties instead of links. Pizza has taken the place of calzones and goldfish crackers have replaced dinner rolls. Brunswick also experienced issues getting fruit like peaches and pears, so she turned to applesauce and then to juice cups. Though these alternatives are better than serving nothing, she said that there are still a lot of missing products.

“There’s a kind of trickle effect with suppliers,” Brunswick said. “Everybody’s trying to buy the same things and you end up having to serve a different product. Fortunately we have other distributors for backup supplies to get us through, but our out-of-stock lists, which last year were usually one or two items, have been like three whole pages for just one order.”

The MCS nutrition department, which is made up of a team of six, is “completely self-funded,” according to Tilford. Although separate from the district’s general funds, Tilford and her team still prioritize maintaining excellent service.

MCS typically enters a cooperative bid — an agreement where multiple buyers negotiate lower prices in one interaction — with other school districts to secure food pricing for the whole school year, but companies have recently begun taking force majeures. These legal clauses permit them freedom from liability of previous contracts in cases of extraordinary events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Tilford said that these unprecedented price increases have drastically complicated the financial aspect of her job.

“As food companies experience a very high demand with a shortage of products and have problems with external price increases, it impacts their costs and they have to raise their prices,” Tilford said. “We handle these finances directly. We pay for all of our staff, we buy all of our food supplies and we maintain all of our facilities, so when we take a price increase from our suppliers, we have to cover it within our operation.”

Brunswick, who has worked in Mason for 11 years, said she had never before seen a force majeure letter or had to deal with companies suddenly raising their prices.

“I had never even heard of [force majeure letters] until this year and we’ve had at least six or seven of them come through,” Brunswick said. “It just shows that this is a pretty rare situation. It takes a pretty big event to make this large of an impact.”

However, through all the stress, chaos and frustration that comes with navigating unemployment and supply shortages, Brunswick has chosen to find some positives in her situation. Following issues with unemployment in lunch lines, she and the rest of the lunch staff partnered with students in the Work Study at Mason High School, a program designed to provide practice with vocational and employability skills to individuals with a variety of abilities, to carry out certain operations in the cafeteria.

“The Work Study kids have been a great help for us,” Brunswick said. “Doing some of [those tasks] like getting food onto trays so we can roll it around and restock when we need to has been helpful. It was just another great resource for us.”

Tilford said she has also found joy in seeing more community members, specifically Mason parents, get involved by helping work the cafeteria lines.

“It’s good to have our community rise to the challenge,” Tilford said. “We have a high success rate with our staff, so it says a lot about our Mason community, finding people that have a time off in the middle of the day to work with us. We are serving a lot more meals, which we’re thrilled about. For us, it’s just a labor of love.”

This love for what she does and providing the best for students is evident in Tilford’s daily life. She leaves her office and goes out every day, usually to Mason Elementary Childhood Center, to help serve lunches. According to her, it is “one of the most fun environments to work in,” and she loves participating in the “beautiful chaos” that is an elementary cafeteria.

Although this year has brought about many new and unexpected challenges, Tilford said she has put a lot of effort into making sure that all her students are well-accommodated. She hopes students see the work that she and the rest of the nutrition department put into getting high-quality lunches onto their trays.

“We care about the dining experience of our students a great deal,” Tilford said. “We want to know if we can do something better and we’re constantly working on improvements. I always want every student to feel like they are welcome to come to us for a meal.”

Photo by Aimee Liu