When Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for Miami-Dade Public Schools, began courting bids for its main food distribution service – the one that provides groceries on a weekly basis so that the fourth-largest school district in the country can serve upward of 35 million meals each year – she didn’t expect any problems.
Despite the supply chain woes wreaking havoc on school districts across the country, including Miami-Dade’s, a lot of companies participated in the pre-bid conference, she said. And besides, in her more than 20 years as head of the district’s school nutrition program, she couldn’t ever recall not receiving a bid.
But that’s exactly what happened. And while the school board took swift action to allow for direct negotiations – a move Parham credits for having a contract now nearly finalized – the occurrence underscores the precarious footing upon which school nutrition directors across the country find themselves.
“It’s just been very disrupting and very, very out of the ordinary,” she says. “It’s been a year unlike any.”
Across the country, school districts large and small are experiencing crises of their own: In Fort Worth, Texas, a spreadsheet 400 lines long detailing food that’s out of stock; in Lansing, Michigan, a four-hour phone call to place food orders that used to take just 20 minutes; in Cleveland, 67 unfilled positions in the school nutrition division; and in the thousands of suburban and rural districts that dot the country, shipments delivered with a fraction of the expected food items, forcing nutrition directors to dip into emergency funds, drive to the nearest grocery store and purchase items at consumer costs.
Ongoing supply chain disruptions, inflation and rising gas prices produced a maelstrom for school nutrition teams this school year – coming on the heels of a year defined by pandemic-related disruptions that required them to be creative to ensure students were fed, especially in communities with overwhelming food insecurity. Threatening to make matters worse, nutrition waivers that have provided generous reimbursement rates and allowed them flexibility from complying with meal patterns and nutrition standard requirements – waivers that they say have been crucial in allowing school meal programs to operate at all – are set to expire at the end of June, supercharging an already unpredictable landscape.
Now, as in-person learning stabilizes and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona talks about moving beyond COVID-19 along with the rest of society, school nutrition directors and advocates are instead bracing for a new school year that many anticipate will be impossible to navigate without help from Congress.
“The situation is only getting worse,” says Jillien Meier, director of the No Kid Hungry campaign. “We are hearing directly from school state directors that they would have taken the COVID year – that hybrid year, that quanatine year – over what they’re experiencing now and what they anticipate next year.”
“This is dire,” she says. “And they think next year will be worse.”
As it stands, the nutrition waivers, which were approved at the outset of the pandemic, will expire June 30 without congressional action to extend them.
The waivers reimburse schools using a higher rate to cover costs due to supply chain disruptions. This year, most schools receive $4.56 for each school lunch they serve, instead of the roughly $3.75 they would receive without the waivers. School nutrition advocates estimate that next school year, the rate will drop to an average of $2.91, not including the annual inflation adjustment that will be announced this summer.
The waivers also free districts from meeting school meal patterns and nutrition requirements that they would otherwise be financially penalized for not meeting – though they still have to try to comply. In addition, the waivers have allowed schools to serve meals, free of charge, to all children – regardless of whether they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – as a way to bypass the administrative requirement of gathering applications in order to serve meals to all students at no cost.
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“It will be nearly impossible for us to be back to business as usual when the waivers expire,” says Christopher Burkhardt, the executive director of school nutrition at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “It’s going to be catastrophic.”
“It’s very troublesome to try to meet the meal pattern and nutrition requirements every single day, and that’s not going to change on July 1,” he says. “If I can get bread, it’s probably not going to be whole grain. I want to serve whole grain bread, my students want whole grain bread. But if the manufacturers can’t make whole grain bread then I’m going to take the next best thing.”
Burkhardt, who oversees the district’s $23 million annual operating budget for school meals for the city’s 38,000 public school students, says this school year has been unlike any other, operating at the margins, scrambling to fill holes and somehow making it work with 67 part-time staff positions unfilled.
“Every day we get an outage and shortage report from our distributor and literally every day we figure out what the substitute will be,” he says. “On some days it’s relatively easy and on other cases it’s absolutely impossible.”
Of course, it’s not only large urban school districts that are running into problems.
Kim Leung, the nutrition services manager at Tigard-Tualatin School District in Oregon, a suburb that enrolls about 12,000 students, has grown accustomed to receiving shipments that fulfill two of the 30 orders she placed, forcing her to dip into emergency funding almost every week this school year.
“I’ve gone to Costco and bought rice, I’ve gone to Costco and bought paper goods, utensils,” Leung says. “That’s easily 10 times the cost. Instead of it being 30 cents or 20 cents, it might be a dollar.”
Leung says paper goods have been particularly difficult to come by, with cases that used to cost the district $20 now costing up to $200.
“The focus for us has been whether we need it,” she says. “We try our best to shop around. But if we need the product, we need the product.”
The expiration of the waivers, Leung says, would translate into the loss of about $1 million in revenue for her district.
Leung and Burkhardt say they expect school districts to face continued challenges until the 2024-25 school year – two years from now – though they both feel fortunate to be in a position where their school district’s contract with its distributor is nearly finalized for the next school year.
“With that said, we’ve said here is what we want to use and the manufacturer has come back and said, ‘Yeah, we think we can do that,’” Burkhardt says. “But until that truck shows up at our loading dock, we are still being cautious. We know right now on any given day we still have outages and that’s going to get any better two months down the road. We are still going to have the same issue. We know that this isn’t going to be a light switch that will turn on and off even though a lot of us are either seeing or feeling that we’re on the other side of the pandemic. It’s not showing up that way for us.”
For Cleveland, which leads the nation in child poverty among large cities, with nearly half of all children living in poverty in 2019, the nutrition waivers weren’t simply a congressional act of kindness to help float them through the pandemic. The waivers were an actual life line for many families.
“When you look at a community that has a lot of food insecurity it’s really devastating,” Burkhardt says about the waivers expiring. “The school district has really been the safety net for a lot of families over the last couple of years and sadly that is going away. I’m hoping in the eleventh hour we will get some legislation that allows the waivers to go through.”
The omnibus package that Congress passed in March initially included funding to temporarily extend the nutrition waivers, but the provision was stripped by Republican leaders seeking to trim costs. The extension was later introduced as a stand-alone bill – the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act – and has the backing of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. But it needs additional GOP support to clear a filibuster.
“Feeding kids should not be a partisan issue,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat and head of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, who introduced the legislation.
“We should make it easier for kids to get the meals they need – not harder,” she says. “As we come out of this pandemic, schools are doing their best. But it takes time for them to transition back to their operations before COVID.”
Democrats are evaluating other potential vehicles for the extension, but prospects look grim given competing domestic crises and the looming midterm elections, which are already scrambling politics as usual.
“We can’t let hungry kids get caught in the middle,” Stabenow says. “Without this support, up to 30 million kids who get food at school will see their essential breakfast and lunch meals disrupted.”
A report published this week by the Food Research Action Center shows that among the 62 large districts surveyed, 95% reported that the waivers helped reduce child hunger in their school district and upwards of 80% also said the waivers made it easier for parents, eliminated the stigma associated with receiving free school meals, eased administrative work and supported academic achievement.
“The reality is if kids aren’t eating nutritious meals, then we will see a decrease in test scores, behavioral issues popping up, absentee issues,” says Michael Gasper, director of nutrition services for the School District of Holmen, a tiny rural school district that serves 4,000 students nestled along the western border of Wisconsin. “It’s a downward spiral we will get ourselves into.”
Gasper took advantage of a recent visit to Holmen by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, to share with her his biggest fear – that the expiration of the waivers will drive out even more staff and cause school nutrition directors to leave the profession due to how complicated it’s become to operate. He says he’s already given his staff mid-year raises in order to convince them to stay, and another raise of 12% to 14% is set for July.
“School nutrition programs across the country have been really innovative in dealing with these issues up to this point,” Gasper says. “We were the ones in communities who really stepped up and made sure kids were fed. I really hope that Congress will give us the tools to finish what we started.”
“As much as we all want the pandemic to be behind us, it’s not going to be for a while,” he says. “I hope they don’t handcuff us.”