On March 12, school nutrition directors were forced to change menus and delivery methods overnight. That afternoon, phones started to light up and emails began to flow in to Gold Star Foods, in Ontario, Calif. Sean Leer, CEO of Gold Star Foods, a distributor that works with 600 vendors and serves 900 school districts in 18 states, said business literally changed overnight.
“We saw 300 to 400 order changes in the course of five hours,” Leer said. Nutrition directors needed to switch from bulk food products to individually wrapped items.
Following the nationwide shutdown of schools due to COVID-19, Gold Star Foods saw a twofold increase in orders for individually wrapped items that weren’t previously in the supply chain. Much of the bulk food that was already in the system to meet school needs through the end of the 2019-20 school year remains in cold storage, and orders for the upcoming school year are pretty much are on hold.
The uncertainty about how schools will open this fall has elevated concerns that the food items and supplies the country’s 13,698 public school districts need could be difficult to come by — and they’ll be competing with private and charter schools.
As the extent of the pandemic became more widely known, USDA announced 13 temporary COVID-19 waivers to help school districts meet the challenge of shifting meal delivery methods and menus away from the school cafeteria through the 2019-20 school year. While USDA has extended three of those waivers — non-congregate feeding, meal service times, and parent pickup — through Aug. 31, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), nutrition directors, and meal distributors and manufacturers agree schools need more certainty given the virus’ continued threat.
On June 4, SNA sent a letter to USDA calling for an immediate extension of COVID-19 emergency feeding waivers through the end of the upcoming school year and asked for a new universal free meals provision that would allow all schools to provide all students with free breakfast and lunch at no charge.
The 2020-21 school year for Indiana’s Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Wayne Township starts July 29, and Sara Gasiorowski, child nutrition director for the district, said the district’s schools still aren’t sure whether they will be teaching students on site or via distance learning.
“We are in a sea of uncertainty,” she said. “We have to be more flexible and nimble than we have ever been.”
Amid that uncertainty, Gasiorowski’s team is planning for four different meal service delivery plans: in the cafeteria, in the classroom, at home, and a hybrid of at home and in the classroom. Each option requires different food items, labor needs, and supplies and equipment.
For instance, distance learning this fall would require the continuation of all the emergency feeding programs. And at this time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending all meals served on-site be delivered to the classroom, which would require different menus, procedures, and investments than meals served to students engaged in distance learning.
“We can’t hop from one program to another,” Gasiorowski said. “We need consistency and one process for districts to use all year long.”
Extending all of the COVID-19 waivers would provide that consistency. However, even with the waivers extended, schools still don’t know how many meals they will be serving when school starts or what they will cost.
In an SNA survey of school nutrition directors, 80% said their district was serving fewer meals since their schools had closed, and 59% saw the number of meals served drop by 50% or more. School closures have also left most School Food Authorities (SFA) with a critical lack of funds to meet shifting demands and their ability to restock school kitchens for the coming school year.
The survey also showed more than 90% of responding school meal program directors anticipated a financial loss (68%) for their 2019-20 programs or were uncertain about financial losses (23%). Among the 861 school districts that responded, combined total losses exceeded $626.4 million.
The school meal program at the Gwinnett County Public Schools, a suburban Atlanta district serving 180,000 students, saw revenue fall 50% in March and April, culminating in a $9 million loss, according to Ken Yant, executive director of school nutrition for the district.
Using several COVID-19 waivers this past spring, Yant was able to quickly transition to the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) of the school meal programs. SSO allows schools that have 50% or more students eligible for free or reduced meals to offer free meals to all students under the age of 18. He then opened 68 sites and designated 498 bus routes to distribute meals.
“Some schools were getting 400 to 500 people to drive up to get a meal,” he said. Yant’s district went from feeding 170,000 meals a day to serving between 40,000 and 80,000, and each meal was more labor-intensive and expensive to prepare because food portions had to be individually wrapped and cut.
In late May, Yant had to order the first month worth of food for the district’s 2020-21 school year even though the district has not yet decided how it will open.
“Compared to last August, our menu is not going to be as expansive,” he said. “We will be relying on individually wrapped items or items that can be quickly prepared, wrapped, packaged, or cupped.”
That means mostly hand-held items like subs, wraps, cold and hot sandwiches, milk cartons, string cheese, fresh veggies and fruit, but nothing messy. Rice, pasta, meal trays, and even yogurt cups could be stricken from the menu unless manufacturers can come up with creative ways to make them spill-proof.
Gold Star’s Leer noted even without orders, some manufacturers have started to produce items they think schools will need when they reopen, but with retail demand so robust, manufacturers are having to compete for line time.
“Our company is making speculative purchases to make sure we have the items in place that our customers need. We are assuming distance learning, drive-through feeding, and some on-site learning, probably with meals served in the classroom,” he noted. “This has become a very narrow supply system for an extremely fragmented market.”
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Gold Star also works with groups of farms and producers who are vertically integrated and who have retooled their processes to put products, including sliced apples, baby carrots, and celery, into individually wrapped items to get ready for an onslaught of orders.
If USDA grants SNA’s request for universal free meals, orders could get even bigger, but probably won’t match pre-COVID levels. According to SNA, school nutrition directors anticipate a significant decline in school meal participation next year, compared to prior years, as some schools continue to explore distance learning, hybrid models, or only allow the youngest students on-site. Thus, even if universal meals are offered next year, SNA said the overall number of meals served could drop due to fewer students being on-site.
“With universal free meals we don’t have to worry about kids who come to school without money and go through the entire day hungry,” Gasiorowski added.
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