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What’s for lunch?

Sioux City school lunch department impacted by national supply chain issues

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Char Rush is shown preparing lunch for the Sioux City Community School District on Nov. 4 at the Harry Hopkins facility. The district is facing shortages of many school lunch staple items. 

SIOUX CITY – School lunches have become one of the many areas being impacted by national supply chain issues, and local school districts are struggling to get a hold of needed items.

Pizza, cereal, cinnamon rolls, spices, Crispitos, paper products, breads, pastas and yogurts are just a few of the items districts are struggling to find.

The Sioux City School food services department has struggled to get some of these items, Director Rich Luze said.

“It is snowballing, and the snowball’s running fast downhill,” he said. While the school has been able to keep ahead of the changes, the district had to issue a last minute change for the first time on Monday, Nov. 15.

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Stephanie McDonald and Ora Dixon are shown preparing lunch for the Sioux City Community School District on Nov. 4 at the Harry Hopkins facility. The district is facing shortages of many school lunch staple items. 

Lunchtime Solutions manages the meal departments for schools across the tri-state area, including South Sioux City and Dakota Valley. The supply issues make every day a challenge, said Deni Winter, the vice president of business development, marketing and purchasing.

Earlier in the year, The United States Department of Agriculture warned of food shortages due to supply chain issues, and created a waiver to protect school meal programs from being penalized if shortages prevented them from meeting certain school meal requirements.

When the waiver was issued, Luze applied, but said the shortage was not as noticeable. Now, every day a manufacturer is telling the district they are not making a product or the product is unavailable.

Sioux City has been able to make substitutions that were almost unnoticeable. Instead of the popular Crispitos, Luze said they substituted chicken taquitos. Instead of chili and cinnamon rolls, students are getting chili and corn bread.

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Kim Doran is shown preparing lunch for the Sioux City Community School District on Nov. 4 at the Harry Hopkins facility. The district is facing shortages of many school lunch staple items. 

When the school had to put out a last minute change notice, students were expecting a hot calzone-type meal, but it was substituted with a slice of pizza.

Luze said they try to stay with no changes in the elementary schools because that’s where there are more specialty diets.

“The middle and high schools we have the additional choices,” Luze said. “It’s easier to make menu substitutions.”

Lunchtime Solutions oversees 54 school districts and services around 60,000 students. Winter said many of the schools have to change menus on a regular basis, sometimes daily.

She said the issues have become worse within the last six months. Last year, she said many schools on the coasts were not back at full capacity, or were doing a hybrid model, with some students in school, and others at home.

Now that they are all back in session, she said the manufacturers are struggling to keep up.

Luze said the schools are being told the manufacturers don’t have the workforce to produce the products.

Baker Boy Company - which produces a variety of bread and baker products – suspended all breakfast items such as donuts and long john rolls, Luze said, so they can focus staff on the bread products.

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Kim Doran is shown preparing lunch for the Sioux City Community School District on Nov. 4 at the Harry Hopkins facility. The district is facing shortages of many school lunch staple items. 

Recent workforce strikes at Kellogg’s plants are also having an impact. While the students still have a variety of cereal options, the district has not been able to provide Kellogg's cereals.

Other manufacturers that are being hit hard include pizza companies and paper product companies.

“It’s not just food, its anything you use to supply the meals,” Luze said. “Paper boats are like gold.”

The workforce shortage is also impacting the repair industry. Winter said there are schools that have broken dishwashers that can’t be fixed, causing schools to need more paper products, further exacerbating the shortage.

If the manufacturers do have the product, some are rationed and the Sioux City School District isn’t able to get enough for the full 14,000 student population. If they are able to get products in low amounts, the changes are grouped by schools.

Winter said finding enough product is like playing a game of Tetris.

For example, a crispy chicken manufacturer may have originally provided distributors with 500 cases; they now may only be able to provide 100. When she puts in orders with the distributors, she said the districts may not know what will and will not show up in the delivery.

“It’s like playing a game of Tetris when finding out something wasn’t on the truck and we need to quickly find a substitute or source from other vendors,” she said.

Winter said Lunchtime Solutions schools order on a weekly or biweekly basis depending on the size of the district. Sioux City orders on a weekly basis.

For the most part, Luze is able to stay ahead of the changes. Normally Luze will place orders two or three months in advance, and while he has not been able to stay as far head as usual, it is enough to know what is and is not going to be available.

With Thanksgiving and winter breaks ahead, Winter hopes the manufacturers will be able to get caught up and once students return after break, the shortage may not be as bad.

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