The start of the 2021-2022 academic year meant many students returned to classrooms for the first time in months. School nutrition staff are welcoming the chance to serve students breakfast and lunch in-person, rather than preparing as many carryout meals and meal boxes for distribution in their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique tests for PreK-12 learning and for students’ food service. While continued federal assistance will ensure that all students are fed, Minnesota school districts are juggling the problems of hiring and of food supply chain issues.

Districts around Minnesota were trying to fill positions for meal preparation serving and lunch aides up until the first days of school. A check of job boards in late August showed dozens of openings statewide.

Minneapolis Public Schools recently completed a $100 million, five-year project to renovate school kitchen facilities. Forty new kitchens were provided as the district transitions from 100 percent prepacked food in 2021 to many tastier options.

Goals of the project are to provide fresh food and higher-quality meals, rather than prepackaged items. But a lack of staff this fall means four of those kitchens will stay closed for a time, said Bertrand Weber, culinary and nutrition services director.

“We have a 30 percent staff shortage going into the school year,” Weber said. Students whose school kitchen aren’t fully staffed will have their meals brought in from elsewhere.

Another issue nutrition staff face is that of food supply chain issues. “We’re seeing shortages across the spectrum.” Weber said. That makes it difficult to plan out menus.

Food chain issues and how they affect school cafeterias is national news, with recent stories in the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. Juice boxes, chicken tenders and chicken patties are among the many food items in short supply.

Mary Jo Lange, who oversees food services for the Red Lake School District, recently stepped down as a leader of Minnesota’s School Nutrition Association. She said that some schools have struggled with federal requirements, including calls for whole-grain products as well as products that are lower in sodium. Supply chain issues could affect the quest for healthier products.

But the United States Department of Agriculture has given schools more options in light of the pandemic. If products such as pizza with whole grain crust cannot be found, a substitute product can be used and a waiver can be sought.

“We have been given more flexibility and that’s a plus,” Weber said.

The Minnesota Department of Education is helping schools with various federal meal waivers. According to MDE, waiver requests must be for current needs of short duration and must be submitted by the child nutrition program sponsor and not a program site or food service management company.

The USDA has issued several flexible policies to schools and childcare institutions, with many extending through June 30, 2022. That is meant to continue the Biden administration’s policy of providing free, healthy meals to children as the pandemic continues.

“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a news release. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high-quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”

Schools can serve meals through USDA’s National School Lunch Program, Seamless Summer Option. SSO follows nutrition standards of the academic year meal programs, while allowing schools to serve free meals to all. It also provides higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal served.

A check around the state showed that many schools are referring people to other resources such as local food shelves or human services programs.

Jane McClure is a longtime Twin Cities community journalist and editor of Access Press, the statewide paper for people with disabilities.

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