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Workforce shortages, supply chain disruptions impact school meals ahead of winter break

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools won’t provide meal pickups for families during winter break as it did last year with outside donations. Workforce shortages and disruptions in the supply chain are exhausting the district’s food services department.

Before the pandemic the district didn’t provide meals during break. But when schools closed in March 2020 the district regularly received meal donations. The district provided staffing to distribute that food. Now nearly two years into the pandemic, the workforce is shrinking and outside of special distributions, food deliveries have become unreliable.

Recently the Pittsburgh Public Schools had to stop posting breakfast and lunch menus for students said Food Services Director Curtistine Walker.

“It’s always in your face every day with a big question mark, are you going to be able to receive your delivery?” Walker said. “If your delivery arrives and isn't canceled, what is it going to be on the truck? What company can I call or what place can I go to, to purchase the items that I didn't receive on the truck?”

Walker said that dietary restrictions have been honored and no child has gone without food this year. Managers have adapted menus based on what they have.

“It's just like planning a menu for the week, going into the refrigerator and going into the cupboards, and you don't have half of what you plan to be on your menu. So school has to basically sometimes serve what they have available,” Walker said.

A national survey by the School Nutrition Associationfound that 98% of food services directors listed a lack of available menu items as their top concern. The response rate for the survey was a little more than 20%. Respondents also noted lack of packaging and supplies and discontinued menu items as other issues.

The only item that Walker said PPS regularly receives is milk. She said it is easier to list what the district regularly receives rather than what they no longer can get.

On top of that, a nationwide shortage in food service is reflected in schools.

“So even if you get the food there, you need to have the employees there to prepare it,” she said. “That can be a challenge. There will be days when we only have a manager and one employee when the school needs to have three or four employees.”

Karen Dreyer, director of child nutrition programs at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said the food bank’s call center reports more calls now, which is typical around the holidays. She said the best way for families to access meals outside of school is to enroll in the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program, or SNAP.

“It supports the food producers, the people who drive it,” she said. “It supports everyone in that food system. So that's the absolute best way. And once you get the benefits, if your situation stays stable, you have them for six months before you need to renew. So that's our first choice.”

She said anecdotally, school leaders have reported that food service staff at schools are at a breaking point.

“It’s important for people to realize they need staff and they are doing the best that they can and all that they can. But they just don't have with limited staff, with the limited food sourcing, all those stressors have have, you know, pushed them to their limits,” she said.

The Food Bank is offering a drive up distribution on the Northside on Thursday Dec. 23. Register here and find more future distributions from the Food Bank.