Schools face shortages of bags, serving containers and prepackaged foods
Monday, April 6, 2020
Coronavirus-related shortages are hitting schools hard as they struggle to serve grab-and-go meals to students stuck at home.
Supplies of prepackaged single-service food items and serving containers are running out fast. Not only are districts switching from fresh food and bulk items but restaurants are also using more bags and containers for takeout orders.
The Oregon Department of Education emailed superintendents Saturday outlining shortage areas and offering some relief.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management will be ordering food-packing supplies in bulk and storing them at its operations center, according to Cindy Hunt, chief of staff for the ODE deputy superintendent’s office. State emergency funds will pay for the items, and the center will ship them to districts.
ODE requested that districts estimate what they need for an 8-week supply and inform ODE strategic planning administrator Terri Ward (firstname.lastname@example.org) by noon Tuesday, April 7.
The foundational shift of America’s daily life has torn asunder a complex web of supply systems and calendars.
Take the applesauce cup.
Good Source, a national supplier for schools, has seen monthly orders increase twentyfold. Increasing production can take months, by which time the demand will likely have shifted, causing manufacturers to hesitate. At the same time, company food stocks are low because Good Source is typically ramping down this time of year for the slower summer meal demand.
Every item in a school’s order has its own supply chain and challenges. With fruits and vegetables, for instance, packaging is usually done after harvest times, with crop amounts calculated to meet predicted demands.
Sean Leer, chief executive officer of Good Source’s parent company GS Foods, praised school food service workers and professionals for creating a massive and remarkably nimble emergency food service in an astonishingly short amount of time. He said GS is working to reorder the supply chain, such as taking bulk meat supplies and having them repackaged into individual sandwiches.
"Unfortunately, we have a five-week lead time on many of our orders and the need is now,” he said. “The need has grown exponentially day after day.
Leer recommended schools try to stick to their usual menus as much as distribution allows because the supply chain is already there for those foods. He suggested, for instance, taking bulk packages of burritos and individually wrapping them.
Schools can still get plenty of fresh food and bulk items, although it takes time and extra expense to repackage them.
According to Hunt’s email, some districts are also having trouble maintaining enough healthy people to make and distribute food. The email reminded superintendents that Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order 20-08 allows districts to shift staff to “supplemental services and emergency management activities,” which includes food service. School district staff in high-risk categories for COVID-19 or with family members in risk categories, however, do not have to do work that is inconsistent with public health recommendations.
ODE sent superintendents a list of possible alternative food service vendors. A public emergency allows schools to pick a vendor without taking three bids first, according to the email.
ODE also recommended schools talk with closed local restaurants for packaging and foodstuffs. The Office of Emergency Management has set up a website to coordinate volunteers and donations.
The U.S. Food and Nutrition Service has granted a waiver for some meal requirements so schools can meet public health requirements.
The McMinnville School District has plenty of food choices but it is running out of packaging to distribute them, said Cinthia Hiatt-Henry, the director of nutrition services.
Before the closures, the district southwest of Portland used a compostable tray with a film over it for an after-school meal program. It has repurposed those trays for its daily meal deliveries. McMinnville was stocked with trays for roughly 600 meals a day for the rest of the year. Now it is sending out close to double that and its supplier says there are no more to be ordered, Hiatt-Henry said.
She said the district is talking with its suppliers about other options or ways to repurpose packaging materials. In any event, the children will be fed.
“If we have to wrap things, we will wrap things,” Hiatt-Henry said. “We will do whatever it takes.”