DAVENPORT, Iowa — Pandemic-related supply chain issues are now causing lunch-time headaches for local school districts.
Across the country, schools have reported a lack of certain foods and a struggle to provide enough nutrition for students. A study from the School Nutrition Association found 97% of school nutrition directors are concerned about these supply chain issues, with 65% saying it's a serious concern.
The Davenport Community School District - one of Iowa's largest - says its having trouble finding enough nutritious items to serve at lunch every day. Administrators claim food distributors aren't able to provide many options and daily substitutions are needed.
Things like pizza crunchers, pre-made quesadillas, fruit slushies, mini pancakes, muffin mix, orange chicken, beef crumbles, fruit cups, frozen vegetables and more are all unavailable.
"It's a struggle for us," said Coni Dobbels, Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for the district. "We are constantly changing our menus daily to keep up with what items we can actually get in, as well as trying to meet USDA regulations for healthier foods."
A catalog outlining only fruits and vegetables available to the district listed 19 out of stock items. While things like sliced pears and sliced apples are tentatively slated to be back around Oct. 15, other items have a much longer wait time. Frozen mixed berries won't be accessible until mid-November, and frozen carrots aren't expected to be ready until mid-January.
Dobbels says when large food manufacturers and distributors began feeling the pinch of the pandemic, school-related services fell to the wayside. Federal regulations require districts to provide low-sodium, healthy options.
"So the first thing most companies do is shut that line down, because we're not a for-profit company or a profit entity of their business," she said.
And the companies in charge of getting the items to the schools are also being hit. Driver shortages across the industry means shipments are delayed or canceled.
Consequently, food substitutions have become a common practice in Davenport schools. A list of fruit and vegetable options for the month of September showed there were only seven days where the district didn't need to plan for changes in the menu. On days like Sept. 30, a note to the district stated that the requested mixed vegetables would not be available, and asked food staff to instead buy items such as broccoli, cauliflower and carrot coins, then steam and combine themselves.
"Sometimes it's the day of and the truck will just not show up with the items, or they will have substituted something else that we don't even know if students will like," said Dobbels. "Our costs have gone up, just because supply and demand happens in schools too."
Dobbels also noted that things are so stressful, it's worse for food staff than when the pandemic began.
At Davenport's West High School, Food Service Manager Donna Holeman keeps boxes and boxes of stockpiled food.
On Thursday afternoon, she had 30 cases of beef crumbles stacked in one of her two giant freezers. During a more 'normal' year, she would only keep five to six at a time, but after running out of the product weeks ago, she knew she needed to be ready for next time.
Nearby, she's got 25 cases of frozen strawberry cups - something she hasn't been able to order since last year.
"I have to stack up because we never know what we're going to be out of," said Holeman. "I have two big freezers, I take advantage and I get as much as I can to make sure we have plenty of food for our kids."
Part of that supply can also be used for other schools across the district, especially for kitchens that don't have her extensive freezer space. Holeman says if an elementary school calls and says they don't have enough fruit that day, she can send over a case of strawberry cups.
But it's not just food that's in short supply at Holeman's kitchen. Typically, she has a 22-person staff, preparing food for nearly 2,000 Davenport kids in four schools. Now, she's down to 12-14 people, depending on who's out sick. During lunch rushes, she and her assistant manager jump into line themselves, serving students slices of pizza.
"My staff have just jumped up to the plate," she said. "They're working longer hours, they're working multiple jobs and tasks. These guys have been tremendous."
The staff has also gotten more creative about what they're selling and when. Pre-Covid, Davenport West only offered Papa John's pizza twice a week. But administrators say it's an easy, popular meal that falls within federal health guidelines for students. Now, slices are sold four days a week.
Despite all of the obstacles each lunch menu brings, both Holeman and Dobbels say they always make sure each student has enough to eat - no matter how many hoops they and their staff have to jump through.
"We just strive through," said Holeman. "We persevere and we feed some kids."
Elsewhere in the Quad Cities region, the Muscatine School District reports its own struggles with lunch meals. In a Facebook post from Oct. 3, the district apologized for sudden changes in each day's menu, and asked for patience as staff work to fill last-minute substitutions and shortages.
The Rock Island-Milan School District has dealt with similar issues, as well as the Moline-Coal Valley School District. In a statement to News 8, MCV wrote:
"Moline-Coal Valley is experiencing issues with receiving food for school lunches. The supply and delivery of foods vary from week to week. As a result, we are working every day to pre-order foods and fill our coolers in anticipation of supply chain issues. Historically, we are ordering earlier than in the past."