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Got milk? Or pizza? Or Crispitos? North Dakota schools struggle with lunchroom supply chain disruptions

Some of the most popular items among students are the hardest to get.

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Phyllis Curden, a cook at South Middle School in Grand Forks, prepares vegetable cups in the kitchen Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — National supply chain disruptions are forcing schools across the region to change menus, create contingency plans and make do with available resources.

And for some students, that means their favorite foods — including popular entrees like Crispitos and pizza — aren't on the menu as much this school year.

It's been an ongoing problem, says Wendy Mankie, director of child nutrition at Grand Forks Public Schools, but the problem has worsened in recent months.

“More recently, November and December, is when we started feeling more effects of it,” she said.

On Jan. 6, Grand Forks Public Schools issued a message on Facebook warning families of supply chain-prompted menu changes.

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The message read: "We work hard to plan our menus, but due to national supply chain issues, we’re having difficulty getting all of the food we ordered delivered to us. While this challenge is not in our control, our team is doing our best to create backup plans."

Mankie said as substitutions in meals have become more common, she felt families should know about the supply chain issues.

“I have not gotten any complaints from parents or children, really, but I just thought that it needed to be communicated,” said Mankie.

Other schools in the region are facing similar problems.

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Some nutrition directors and cooks in the region report that some of the most popular items among students are the hardest to get.

“A lot of the breakfast pizzas and stuff like that are really hard to get a hold of right now,” said Kim Johnson, head cook at Northwood Public Schools. “Even the regular pizza for lunch is really hard to get.”

Fargo Public Schools and Grand Forks Public Schools both contract with Sysco for food deliveries, and have had issues with chicken products and pizza. The district in Grafton contracts with U.S. Foods and Cash-Wa, and has had issues with cereal and Crispitos, a Tyson taco roll-up that is especially popular with students.

“That’s probably their most favorite meal in the high school and we have not been able to get those all year from any of our suppliers,” said Sandy Sackett, food service director at Grafton Public Schools.

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Students in Northwood miss Crispitos as well, says Johnson.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, has specific nutritional requirements for food served in schools. For example, half of the grains served need to be whole grain-rich, and fruits and vegetables need to be served with every meal. The USDA has also set goals for sodium reduction in schools.

Because of these requirements, nutrition directors rely on items made to serve in schools. Cindy Hogenson, nutrition services director for Fargo Public Schools, gave the examples of pizza with a whole grain crust or low-sodium chicken nuggets.

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A kindergarten student takes a carton of milk from the cooler during lunch Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, at Lewis and Clark Elementary in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum

“The manufacturers going into the school year didn’t have the staff and resources to ramp up their normal production for school food, so those manufacturers cut their variety and just focused the resources they did have on a few items to manufacture,” said Hogenson.

Whole lines of food for schools have not been available all year, or are becoming unavailable. Hogenson said chicken has been hard to come by, and she just received word that the beef supplier for Fargo Public Schools will be ceasing production. She says when chicken is available, it's increasingly expensive.

“Prices have really exploded since the beginning of the year,” said Hogenson.

Food distribution companies play a role in some shortages. Manvel Public Schools contracts with U.S. Foods. Superintendent Dave Wheeler said the district had issues at the beginning of the school year, but things have improved in recent months.

“It’s better for us than it’s been probably all year,” he said.

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Got milk?

Milk is one of the most recent, and most local, lunch essentials to be affected by supply chain issues in the region. Many districts in the area source their milk from Fargo’s Cass-Clay Creamery, or a dairy that distributes Cass-Clay products. In December, Cass-Clay notified clients that there could potentially be a shortage of milk in half-pint containers, which are used by K-12 schools. The problem was not with the milk, but instead with the container.

“They told us there are just three manufacturers of that shape of carton across the country, and I’m sure due to supply and labor shortages, they fell behind in production,” said Hogenson.

“A lot of districts, including us, had to come up with contingency plans in case we started getting milk in bulk,” said Hogenson.

Mankie reported that Grand Forks Public Schools received the same notice from Cass-Clay, and planned to pour servings of milk for students if the half-pint packages did not arrive.

“It would have been a little more work, but they would still be able to accept milk if they want,” said Mankie.

Hogenson says Fargo schools received all the half-pint cartons they ordered, and received word from Cass-Clay that the carton manufacturers should be able to keep up with orders moving forward.

“But, of course, we are still monitoring the situation and making sure that we’re ready to adapt if we need to,” said Hogenson.

Manville Public Schools serves Cass-Clay milk sourced from a dairy in Devils Lake, and Wheeler says his district is still having some issues. Usually, the district orders three varieties of milk — skim, 2% and chocolate — and kids can choose the kind they want.

“Right now we’re probably getting one of those three options. He’s giving us all chocolate one time or all 2% at one time, just to try to fill in the order,” said Wheeler.

Little can be done

With many supply chain issues rooted in labor shortages at a manufacturing level, school administrators can do little to solve the food issues in their districts. But, when the lunch bell rings, students need to be fed.

Most of the pressure falls on lunchroom employees and planners. When typical items go out of stock, they need to find alternatives to order. If a truck comes without an entree, it's the cooks' and nutrition directors' job to figure out what to substitute on the menu.

Mankie, who has a background as a dietitian, does the best she can to continue to serve students within federal nutrition guidelines. She said the USDA has been more flexible with nutrition requirements among the supply chain challenges.

When a manufacturer or food distributor cannot provide a product that adheres to the nutrition requirements, schools can ask for a waiver from the USDA for that product. The added flexibility takes some pressure off nutrition directors so they can focus on the task at hand — feeding students.

“My goal, and my whole staff’s goal really, is to continue to feed them still, as healthy of meals as we can get them,” said Mankie.

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