By SAVANNAH TRYENS-FERNANDES, AL.com
Cayce Davis spends hours of her day on the phone.
As child nutrition director for Elmore County schools, she has to call their three food distributors to figure out which food products they actually have and what they can substitute. She has to see if her district’s impromptu food stockpile in a warehouse can meet needs. Then she has to figure out if orders will arrive in time for her short-handed staff to prep and cook 14,000 meals.
Last night, she woke up to a 3 a.m. text from a staff member calling in sick and had to make sure there’d be someone to fill his place in three hours.
She’d like to take her first vacation since the pandemic began.
COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains globally. It’s also made it hard to harvest, package and ship food consistently — which affects thousands of children who depend on schools to provide nutritious meals. Every district in the state is currently experiencing these supply chain issues, according to the Alabama State Department of Education.
The problems have been building for a long time, according to experts and child nutrition workers — and although some districts are trying pay raises and partnerships with local farmers, solutions may take awhile to arrive.
So far, no school has had to close because of an inability to serve meals — but the time spent finding ways to serve more kids with fewer resources has taken a toll on child nutrition programs.
“Right now our goal is to not be the cause of shutting down school,” Davis said. “I think we’re going to barely skate by offering our meals this week.”
Her district isn’t alone. Throughout Alabama, dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and now meat have been hard to come by. Crispitos aren’t the only casualty.
Decatur City Schools said on Aug. 28 that “supply chain issues left DCS without enough food for the coming week,” forcing staff to work an 18-hour-day and drive up to Birmingham to get products.
“Diced chicken is like gold right now,” said Davis, who ordered 368 cases of it earlier this month and only received 160 because of outages.
On top of issues with the food supply, there are also fewer truck drivers to deliver the food and child nutrition workers to staff cafeterias and school kitchens.
Davis predicted her child nutrition team is down 10-15% everyday because of health or family issues. The district currently has five open positions but no qualified candidates, and an extreme shortage of substitutes.
Elmore County’s child nutrition staff are constantly having to plug holes and adapt with longer work hours and rotations between schools.
Child nutrition jobs often require a lot of physical labor, such as moving palettes of food and milk.
But average wages in the state are low, according to Angelice Lowe, child nutrition program director at the state department of education. In Elmore County, the starting salary is $17,312 for a child nutrition worker, which is slightly higher than the federal minimum wage of $15,080 annually.
“We love our kids, we love our community, but we’re just tired,” Davis said.
‘UNTIE OUR HANDS’
The United States Department of Agriculture extended free meals for all students this school year after first providing the waivers at the beginning of the pandemic.
As a result, more students are eating school meals year-round in the state. Davis estimates that she’s seen a 20% increase in participation in Elmore County. Danielle Turk, who runs summer food programs for the state department of education, said its program served approximately 7 million meals this summer as compared to 4.5 million in 2020 and 3 million in 2019.
According to the No Kid Hungry campaign, one in five Alabama children are hungry, and experts and federal officials believe food insecurity has increased during the pandemic. Of the 716,084 students in Alabama public schools last year, 49% enrolled in free- and reduced-price lunch programs, according to department of education data.
“School meals are critical for students,” said Eleni Towns, associate director of No Kid Hungry. “They play a really important role in building equity and supporting learning across the board. And with so many challenges from the pandemic that families and households are facing, they are an important lifeline for families to really make sure there is some stability and access to nutrition for kids.”
Schools serve meals for both in-person and remote students. Districts can also elect to operate sites to provide food to any child under the age of 18, even if they’re not enrolled in their schools, which Elmore County does.
Davis and two CNP staff members set up a tent outside of Wetumpka Middle School every Wednesday for food pickup.
Parents drive up as staff fill paper bags with gallons of milk and apple juice, romaine lettuce, peas, tomatoes, Cheez-Its, oatmeal and frozen burritos and place them inside open car trunks.
On a hot Wednesday in September, more than 100 families signed up to pick up food. Food items are dictated by USDA meal pattern requirements, which mandate schools offer a certain amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and protein.
The department has provided some flexibility with nutritional requirements due to the pandemic, but Alabama school staff say it’s still nearly impossible to provide meals that meet requirements. If they don’t, schools risk losing federal funding for meals.
Kelley Wassermann, director of the Sylacauga County Child Nutrition Program, recently wrote a letter to USDA officials pleading for more flexibility and help.
Wassermann described her average day of fearing staff won’t show up to work, having no substitutes and never knowing whether food deliveries will have missing products.
When one delivery didn’t include baby carrots, her planned menu was thrown out of compliance.
“Yes, we could process our own carrots, but there is not enough time to prep that item along with the other hoops we have to jump through to have meals prepared and delivered to the classroom on time,” she wrote.
Wassermann also noted shortages in foam and paper products used to serve and transport items and maintain safe food temperatures.
“Please, USDA, untie our hands and allow us a chance to swim and save our programs and our sanity,” she wrote.
Davis said her team has had to get creative to overcome shortages.
Elmore County began leasing a warehouse during the pandemic to store items like crackers, cereal and chicken in a can, as well as trays and other food carriers to get them through the semester — something she knows a lot of other districts don’t have the resources for.
But she sees no end in sight.
“I’ve just been told October is going to be worse than September,” she said.
For organizations like Food Bank of North Alabama, a local food hub that connects Alabama farmers to school districts, the shortage shows the importance of localizing food supplies.
“When we’re presented with these regional, national and global supply chain issues, what are we learning from it?” said Carey Martin-Lane, co-manager of the food bank’s Farm Food Collaborative. “People just keep talking about the issues, but they’re not saying, could we think creatively and strategically about creating a system that would be less susceptible to these issues? And the way to do that is to localize the food system.”
This fall, the Farm Food Collaborative is working with four nearby school districts — Madison County, Madison City, Cullman City and Lawrence County — to supply students with fruits and vegetables grown locally.
They have generated over $400,000 in sales for Alabama farmers since their launch in 2014 and believe their hyperlocal model should be used statewide. In past years, Farm Food Collaborative has worked with up to nine districts at a time.
But because the collaborative and many other farm programs in the state only provide raw, whole products, districts often aren’t able to process the offered items if they have staffing shortages.
For now, child nutrition programs have had to make frequent changes, such as providing less notice about lunch menus, which can be difficult for students with food allergies and other sensitivities.
At Wetumpka Middle School, Davis checks in on the small group in the kitchen who are making desserts with corn flakes they had stored in the warehouse — something new that they’ve created with what was available.
“We’re going to survive this,” she says encouragingly to the staff after tasting the treat.
“Yes we will!” a few shout back with their heads nodding and hands working.
Savannah Tryens-Fernandes is a member of The Alabama Education Lab at AL.com and is supported by a grant from Report for America. To learn more about the team and make a financial contribution, visit alabamaeducationlab.org/support.