School districts statewide are reporting problems getting the food they need to prepare student meals. Some Wisconsin farmers see supply chain issues as an opportunity to show food service managers the benefits of buying locally produced food.
Kat Becker, owner of Cattail Organics vegetable farm in Athens, said her farm has tried to help local school districts meet the changing needs of students throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
When the students were sent home for virtual learning in 2020, she sold lettuce and other vegetables to the Wausau School District for family meal kits.
This year, Becker said many districts she works with have dramatically increased their orders for certain items as their normal food service providers experience the same supply chain issues that industries face nationwide. .
As an example, she cites the Abbotsford and Spencer school districts, which she says have shared food services and bought lettuce from her husband’s organic vegetable business for years.
“When they saw the supply chains change, they had to revamp their entire salad bar, and so their purchases for any given week were like three or four times as much as they had in the past,” Becker said. “Part of this was also due to the fact that many food service managers were trying to get more food on the spot, especially fresh food from local farms that they knew could last for several weeks, rather than dying. ‘trying to depend on distributors who basically show up and say, “Well, half of your order isn’t there.”
John Swanson, director of food services for the Southern Door County School District, said his orders were late or items were missing this year, sometimes forcing him to replace foods “on the fly.”
He said chicken has been his hardest item to find this year. He typically purchases ready-to-eat items like chicken nuggets or patties through the US Department of Agriculture’s Foods in Schools program.
“We won’t have any this year, so we have to start trying to think of other things to perform in its place,” Swanson said. “Other chicken products that you’re trying to get from your supplier – like Sysco, Reinhart, US Foods, whatever supplier the school uses – a lot of them are out of stock or the price just becomes very expensive. “
Swanson said sometimes schools could look to local food producers to fill in the gaps. His district has established a relationship with a local beef producer over the years to obtain ground beef competitively.
But using fresh produce instead of processed foods doesn’t always work for schools. Most districts had limited capacity to prepare fresh food before the pandemic, and the current labor shortage has compounded the problem.
“We are passing 70 pounds of baby carrots a day. So to get fresh carrots to subsidize from a local farmer, try peeling the carrots and then chopping them, it would take a few hours, and we just don’t have the manpower to do it ” , Swanson said. “When we shop locally, we really have to think about the time constraints… and we just choose when we’re going to do it.”
Kara Ignasiack, a nutrition education consultant for the state’s Department of Education, said this was a common obstacle she hears from schools when she talks to them about buying local. She works with AmeriCorps Wisconsin members to help local schools increase their purchases of local foods. But Ignasiack said the process can take a long time.
“It’s much easier to buy from their regular distributors because it’s quick and easy online than buying locally from a farmer requires relationship building and extra time than food service managers. don’t always have, ”said Ignasiack.
She said some schools are so short on manpower in their kitchens this year that food service managers have to line up lines for students to be served.
Ignasiack’s program launched the AmeriCorps Wisconsin Local Food Database in early 2021, creating lists of schools interested in buying locally and of farms hoping to sell to them in order to speed up that relationship. She said they’ve seen a lot of interest from both sides this year, but it’s unclear to what extent current supply chain issues have been linked.
Regardless of why they want to buy local, Ignasiack hopes these relationships will last for years.
“We really hope that once some of these supply chain issues are gone, this established relationship can easily continue,” she said.
Swanson said that before the pandemic, his school was doing a lot more to celebrate locally sourced foods, such as creating themed menus featuring a vegetable or hosting farm-to-school events where every menu item came from a local farm. But much of that fell through as its staff focused on monitoring COVID-19 safety protocols in the dining room.
“It’s hard for us to get through a normal day at this point, let alone trying to plan special events. But we’re still doing a few here and there,” Swanson said.
He said the price of food is the other factor that can determine whether a school is interested in buying local. For example, Swanson said local apples in the fall cost the same as those from a food vendor, and the quality is much better. But vegetables are almost always more expensive in his experience.
Becker said she knew pricing could be a problem for her school clients. She said some understaffed schools were willing to pay more for easy-to-serve products like salad mixes instead of having to process heads of lettuce. At the start of the school year, Becker said prices for locally grown cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are often comparable or cheaper than what distributors can offer.
“It really varies depending on what school district you’re talking to, how much money they’re spending right now to produce, and how they’re budgeting,” Becker said. “We’re at a time because of the Universal School Lunch that some districts have more money than they’ve ever had. Which means they’re free to buy more or better fresh produce. “
USDA has helped schools provide free meals to all students this year by making school meal programs more flexible and increasing reimbursement rates available through June 2022.
Becker hopes this emphasis on making healthy food available to all students continues after the pandemic crisis is over. And local food producers will play an increasingly important role in providing these foods to students.