School cafeterias stretched for resources in new COVID-19 economy

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

There’s nothing much to do except grin and bear it.

Every school employee has had to adapt to the new COVID-19 landscape in some way. School nurses work diligently to trace those who come in contact with positive cases. Teachers have grown adept at teaching virtually. No one, though, has to wrangle with the new reality as much as the person responsible for making sure all of the food gets in.

For Lovell schools, that task lands on Food Program Supervisor Rosanna Rusch, and by the time 6 a.m. hits on Monday morning, she already has her hands full. 

“I spend a lot of time thinking about meal planning,” Rusch said. “Sometimes the order doesn’t get allocated until midnight. That’s when I find out when I’m getting something. And then the wheels get turning.” 

Meal planning has been a more creative endeavor than usual this year. For example, Lovell schools didn’t get egg products, such as egg patties, egg omelets and boiled eggs, until last week. They’re still struggling to get napkins. Rusch would like to make soup, which would be an easy solution to many of her problems,  but the district doesn’t have enough bowls. 

Most food products served in a cafeteria are ordered well in advance, Rusch said. The school district is part of a cooperative comprising 60 school districts, an organization whose primary task is to lower food costs. 

“Being in a co-op is nice, because it gives us a lot of buying power. Instead of saying we want to buy 200 cases of this, we’re saying we want to buy 200,000 cases of this, so it saves us a ton of money,” Rusch said. “We all correlate in the year with what products we want in that basket. But, it does limit our options.”

Upon agreeing to that contract for lower pricing, school districts also agree to spend 90 percent of their food budget on a limited range of distributors. As supply chains get backed up and scrambled, that leaves all 60 school districts ordering the same products, many of which aren’t readily available.

Companies have many reasons for food products not being available. Rusch said most of them cite COVID-19 as the main factor, but one company they relied on for yogurt shipments even had a factory fire that shut down distribution. 

Say Rusch has an order in for whole wheat noodles. Whole wheat noodles are preferable because they better fit rigid federal nutrition standards. Unfortunately, whole wheat noodles aren’t always available. When food distributors are out of one product, they often swap them for a similar product, such as regular pasta. 

Upon learning about the swap, with only a matter of hours remaining before the shipment arrives, there are hurdles to jump. The first is simply storing the product. 

Trucks need a full pallet to ship, so when distributors have a lot of one product a district has ordered and not much of anything else, they tend to give a whole year’s supply of that one product to the district instead. 

“What they’ll do is send you all of the ground beef that you were supposed to get in 12 different separate shipments for the whole year, so you’ll have a freezer full of ground beef and no room for anything else,” Rusch said. “It makes it very difficult. And then you have to be really careful, and you want to stock up as much as you can, but you can’t because your storage is filled with just that one product.”

It amounts to most districts having an abundance of a narrow range of products and not much room for anything else. 

But, say, Rusch finds the space for those regular noodles. There are more hoops to jump through. Districts must make sure they get that substituted product for the same price as their initial order, a process that doesn’t automatically happen.

“That requires another middle man,” Rusch said. “It definitely compounds the issue.”

After that’s sorted, districts must get state approval for every change they make to the food they serve to ensure it still meets federal guidelines. 

Lovell schools currently have variances on 18 different products, Rusch said. 

Most of the time, variances get approved, but not all the time. For instance, schools can’t get their hands on fat-free flavored milk, and the federal government requires that districts have one fat-free option available at all times. So, Rusch has had altered shipments of low-fat flavored milk that she hasn’t been able to use because another skim milk option wasn’t available at the time. 

Or, back to the pasta example Rusch gave the anecdote of attempting to make lasagna with the subbed regular pasta instead of the whole-wheat pasta. The state denied it. 

“They thought there was a healthier Italian dish we could use,” Rusch said.

All this, before 7 a.m., at least two times a week. 

It gets all the more complicated for specialty items school districts must supply  to meet the needs of students with food allergies. 

“That’s a supply source that’s been really rough,” Rusch said. 

Unable to get the majority of those products through the standard food distributors, Rusch has made partnerships with the Red Apple and even Cody’s Walmart over the past two years to get several products in. As a result, it’s not uncommon for her to make that hour drive up to Walmart to stock up. 

There are other compounding issues. For example, due to federal legislation in response to COVID-19, school meals are free for students. It’s a wonderful thing, Rusch said, but it means they have to serve more students while getting fewer supplies.

Rusch said that students are getting used to hearing that food didn’t arrive on the truck, they’ve taken the ever-shifting cafeteria menus rather well.  Especially with younger students, though, there can be heartbreak. Rusch often can’t update her final menu until the morning of the meal, and most parents check the schedule the night before. So, it’s not uncommon for a student to arrive at school with a bag lunch expecting a meal they didn’t care for and finding an entirely different meal they would have much preferred instead.

“It’s not my idea of a fun time,” Rusch said.

The most significant blow for students has been a lack of chicken nuggets. Processed meat products have been unreliable all year. As a result, Rusch has only been able to serve them twice. What Rusch has plenty of instead is fish sticks.

“Some have taken that well,” Rusch said. “Some, not so much.”

Rusch has been valiant, though. The district has only had to miss pizza day once. 

“It works out, and the crew here is amazing. I’m very grateful for all of them on a daily basis,” Rusch said. “They definitely make my job easier when I’m trying to put two and two together with nothing.”

Being a food supervisor right now can feel like being stranded out at sea and drifting wherever the wind blows hardest, Rusch said, as she scrambles to meet student needs and government requirements with food sources she can’t count on or predict. 

It’s all a matter of how you approach it.

“We just stay positive because there’s nothing else you can change about your attitude,” Rusch said. “We’ve just decided to be happy.”