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SALT LAKE CITY — School lunch programs around the country, including multiple schools and districts in Utah, are adapting their menus this year to account for significant shortages due to plant closings and worker shortages.
Kelly Orton, director of child nutrition at Salt Lake City School District, arranged for the production of 1,300 milk cartons after Meadow Gold was unable to provide them for the district's schools on Monday. He picked them up and delivered them to schools himself because the supplier did not have the staff to add the schools to their delivery route.
Orton said his school district has had problems acquiring the food on their menus since the start of the school year, but they have been able to make sure food is provided to the students every day even though some favorite meals have been taken off the menu entirely.
"We're finding other foods to provide, we're not shortchanging them. We're always providing something," Orton said.
Orton said that a shortage in sugar has eliminated flavored milk options, now only 1% white milk is available to the students and some days they end up substituting milk with juice.
The biggest concern currently for Orton and others on his staff is the low supply of disposable paper products, like bowls and trays. He is planning for the shortages to continue into the next school year but hoping that they will be resolved in the spring.
"This is the new normal. We have to get used to it and work with it … do what we can," Orton said, adding that he is "so proud" of employees who have adjusted throughout the last two years to help provide meals to students.
"We don't have the people, we've had to redo our processes so we work with fewer people, but that means they put in extra hours and they work harder," he said.
Schools are limited in what items they can serve, due to staff limitations requiring food with little preparation and government regulations dictating what food needs to be available in lunches. The Salt Lake City School District said it has received waivers to help them switch products without going through the typical process when the typical product is not available.
Ben Horsley, a spokesman from Granite School District, said the district has encountered multiple price increases for items because as a government entity, it is required to allow companies to bid on providing supplies. There have been fewer bids this year, leading to increased prices.
Horsely said they have discussed using emergency procurement protocols to get food from Costco on a few different occasions, but the district has not needed to do that yet.
"There does not appear to be any end in sight at this point in time, and there's no indication that some of these disruptions to supplies and transportation issues will get resolved," he said.
Alpine School District, the largest in Utah, has adapted and simplified menus as well, but has been able to get their orders fulfilled through their contract with Sysco, according to David Stephenson, the district's executive director of communications.
Stephenson said that district has also struggled this year to find enough nutrition service workers to help serve lunch.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said that it is aware of the shortages and is working to help schools obtain items and ensure that schools are not penalized if they don't meet all meal standards.
"USDA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting the school meal programs, taking action to help schools get out in front of possible challenges and addressing other issues that arise from all angles and with all available resources," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a statement.