The picture shows Jonathan Alder's students waiting in line for lunch. The entire county is affected by supply chain issues, from shortages of pizza and chicken to styrofoam trays. (Photo submitted)
Throughout Lianhe County, school officials are using their creativity to overcome supply chain issues and ensure that students are fed. Earlier this month, Fairbanks school officials learned that they had no milk for a day. Food Service Director Lorri Mowery was able to quickly purchase hundreds of cartons. However, the area was found unable to deliver milk. Fairbanks supervisor Adham Schirg said that Jim Clayton, the maintenance supervisor, drove a regional van to the dairy to fetch milk in time for the students. Schirg said that while this story highlights the way employees work together, it also highlights the problems Fairbanks — and every area in the county — face. Supply chain problems caused by production delays, labor shortages, lack of transportation, and various other problems have caused problems at multiple levels. Lunch trays are not available in some areas. Others have difficulty finding cleaning supplies. Some problems are not obvious. Officials said the milk shortage was due to a broken machine in the dairy. As there are no replacement parts, milk cannot be packaged and distributed, and regions are forced to compete. Hilger said Fairbanks “sees the same problems that Marysville and all regions see.” Marysville Ryan Walker, director of operations at Marysville Exempted Village School District, said beef, lunch trays and cutlery have been scarce. The school district cooperates with Gordon Food Service (GFS) and Rightway Food Service to provide school meals like other areas, which will create competition when resources are scarce. "This is an unfortunate situation," he said. For some resources, the supply chain has been disrupted. "Even if we find a supplier, we still have problems with delivery," Walker said. He explained that the food service staff have been working overtime to ensure that the students have nutritious meals, and even preparing to drive to pick up the goods when the delivery is delayed. "Everyone works very hard to make sure the children are taken care of," Walker said. He added that food service workers have already come to Wal-Mart to buy paper products, but it is unrealistic to buy materials at retail prices. "When you buy in bulk from a supplier, the cost is only half," he said. He believes that before the pandemic, it is easy to take advantage of the surplus trays. "If you don't have a tray, it will really change the way you lunch," Walker said. If there is a silver lining to the supply shortage, he said it is encouraging to see food suppliers and school staff working together to serve students. At present, Marysville’s school has “be able to maintain a certain degree of diversity” for lunch. However, Walker said that the school district is "subject to what is available." Walker explained that the school has notified the school family through a letter about the limited meal options. Fairbanks Schirg points out that many problems involve "things that you won't notice until they don't exist." The person in charge said that Mowrey, the director of food services in the area, and others have been looking to "fill the gap." "Almost every week I am trying to find a way to meet the demand," Hilg said. He pointed out that just as the machinery of a dairy factory breaks down, problems in the supply chain of secondary suppliers will exacerbate problems in schools. Schirg explained that there are two buses in the area that need repairs. He said that it is not uncommon for buses to stop serving for a period of time. However, spare parts for repairing buses are not available in the area. As these buses are out of service, there is no room for any other buses in the area to break down or even stop service for routine and preventive maintenance. He said that what is more worrying is that district officials worry that they will not receive the buses they order each year as part of the fleet replacement plan. "This is something we are absolutely concerned about," he said. Schirg said that most of the time, school officials knew what was going to happen. He said that this year "brought a different source of stress from previous years." He said that at a time when employees are already struggling with staffing, the lack of supply leaves them with more work to do. "They are superimposed on each other and create pressure points for the day-to-day operations in our region," Hilger said. Jonathan Alder's supply chain problems also caused the most serious blow to Jonathan Alder. "Distributors are very frank, for example,'We can't do anything,'" said Monica Leichtenberg, JA Communications Coordinator. "We are all told to be patient." Lechtenberg said that the local family received a letter on October 15 reminding them of shortages and possible menu changes. She said that product supply issues made it particularly difficult to obtain the food needed for the planned menu. "Our order can reflect one thing, but what we actually get may be very different," she said. Lechtenberg added that food employees are now required to be more creative and "think outside the box" in order to use what is available to make a meal. In addition to the food itself, she added, trays are in short supply. JA now has to use clamshells, which are more expensive and generate more waste. In addition to the supply itself, Lechtenberg said time has also been stretched. Lechtenberg said food service workers usually spend "about an hour" a week ordering food from GFS for a week. Now, assessing the out-of-stocks and the products on hand is a kind of "daily battle." "(There are) many days have to start over and over again, because they often have a full meal," she said. Generally, Ohio school districts must comply with dietary standards set by the federal government. Lechtenberg said that food shortages caused by supply chain problems are almost impossible to meet these standards. She said that the federal government has admitted that it is currently unable to enforce these regulations because certain foods must be "replaced" in order to provide meals. Jonathan Alder recently signed a contract with the local Domino's Pizza to "fill what we lack," Lechtenberg said. She added that sometimes the food on the menu "we have eaten up", but thanks to dominoes, the area has not experienced a "real shortage". In addition to food, Leichtenberg said the region has encountered difficulties in obtaining the parts and equipment needed for IT services. Similarly, it takes about eight months to receive the windows that need to be replaced. Lechtenberg said school districts usually expect only "one or two weeks." Bev Wasserbeck, director of food services at North Union, said: "We are experiencing (supply shortage), but it may be a little bit less in larger school districts." North Union's main food supplier is GFS. The school district also uses Rightway as a backup supplier. Wasserbeck said that even before the pandemic and recent supply chain problems, she had used alternate suppliers as "a way to control prices." Currently, North Union's food service department has difficulty obtaining processed foods, such as pizza and chicken nuggets. As a result, the department is buying alternative brands of pizza, sometimes at higher prices. The supply of milk and bread at North Union has always been sufficient. One day, the school almost ran out of chocolate milk from Smith Dairy, because a line in the factory turned yellow. The milkman happened to have a truck he could take to the school before the line was disconnected. In addition, the meat supplier’s production line failed and there were no parts that needed to be repaired, resulting in little or no beef for school lunches. Fruits and vegetables are provided through government programs using commodity dollars. "We have returned to doing some things ourselves," Wasserbeck said. However, in the case of labor shortages across the country due to the epidemic, more "home-cooked dishes" require more labor. Fortunately, Wasserbeck said she has enough cooks and substitutes. "Last year, many regions laid off when they were uncertain," she said. "We didn't. We were able to keep them." She added that her "employees are really resilient." "I'm really lucky to have it," Wasserbeck said. Wasserbeck also said that the supply of styrofoam bowls and food trays is limited due to the shortage of resin used to produce styrofoam. She said she had considered buying paper products at a company in Camden. Many schools have limited lunch options, but Wasserbeck said North Union continues to offer three options every day, including hot meals, salads or sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly, turkey or grilled cheese). "I hope we never have to reach that point," Wasserbeck said of restricting choices. She said that “when supplies are insufficient,” the school’s menu will change slightly. North Union director Richard Baird added that the school district is waiting for HVAC parts and cleaning supplies that are delayed due to supply chain issues. Triad Triad officials are also trying to maintain flexibility because food orders are affected by supply chain issues. Operations Director Neil Laughbaum said that when placing an order with GFS, "you will encounter some trouble every week." Laughbaum said that employees often place orders, and a few days later found out that some products were out of stock, leading to a "last-minute boom" looking for alternatives. "Everyone knows that they must remain flexible," he said. Operations director Traci Perry said that some lunch "staples", such as pizza and chicken, are often not available. Even so, she said the lunch menu "will not change often." In this case, she said that students usually know "at least half a day" in advance. Superintendent Vickie Hoffman said that part of the reason for the relative stability is the district’s high school food service committee, where faculty, staff and students pass the test and approve menu items. She said that their feedback "opened up the food we can provide" and provided more menu options for rotation in the area. Similarly, Hoffman said there are always two options in high school. She said that even if there are supply shortages and delays, they still have at least one expected choice. Laughbaum pointed out that Triad has never encountered the problem of their lack of food to feed their students, even in the case of COVID-related requirements that all students must provide free lunch. Hoffman said that most families and students are aware of potential shortages and menu changes. "I think we all thank us for providing food to students for free," she said. Laughbaum said that the area has been able to solve the shortage problem without opening it to other suppliers. However, he pointed out that the triad "spends much more than usual" on food costs. Hoffman said that the five-year forecast takes into account the year-on-year increase in food prices and includes a "little buffer" for further increases caused by the pandemic. However, Perry said she was grateful that things seemed to be "a little better."
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