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As schools struggle with food supply chains, Wisconsin farmers help fill the gaps

Labor shortage, prices are some of the biggest barriers keeping schools from buying more local products

School lunch trays filled with food
U.S. Department of Agriculture (CC-BY)

School districts across the state are reporting problems getting the foods they need to make student meals. Some Wisconsin farmers see the supply chain problems as an opportunity to show food service directors the benefits of buying locally produced foods.

Kat Becker, owner of Cattail Organics vegetable farm in Athens, said her farm has tried to help local school districts respond to the changing needs of students throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

When students were sent home for virtual learning in 2020, she sold lettuce and other vegetables to the Wausau School District for family meal kits.

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This year, Becker said many of the districts she works with have dramatically increased their orders for certain items as their normal food service vendors experience the same supply chain problems seen by industries nationwide.

As an example, she points to the Abbotsford and Spencer school districts, which she said share food services and have bought lettuce from her husband’s organic vegetable business for years.

“When they saw supply chains shift, they had to rearrange their whole salad bar, and so their purchases for a given week were like triple or four times what they had been in the past,” Becker said. “Part of that was also many food service directors trying to get more food on site, especially fresh food from local farms that they knew could last several weeks, rather than trying to depend on distributors who were basically showing up and saying, ‘Well, half of your order isn’t here.’”

John Swanson, food service director for Southern Door County School District, said his orders have shown up late or been missing items this year, sometimes forcing him to substitute foods “on the fly.”

He said chicken has been his most difficult item to find this year. He usually buys ready-to-eat items like chicken nuggets or patties through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foods in Schools program.

“We’re not getting any of those in this year, so then we have to start to try to think of other items to run in its place,” Swanson said. “Other chicken products you’re trying to get from your vendor — like Sysco, Reinhart, US Foods, whatever vendor the school is using — a lot of those are backordered or the price is just becoming really expensive.”

Swanson said sometimes schools are able to turn to local food producers to fill in the gaps. His district has built a relationship with a local beef producer over the years to get competitively priced ground beef.

But using fresh products instead of processed foods doesn’t always work for schools. Most districts had limited capacity to prepare fresh foods before the pandemic and the current labor shortage has compounded the issue.

“We go through 70 pounds of baby carrots a day. So in order to get fresh carrots to subsidize that from a local farmer, to try to peel the carrots and then to cut them up, would take a couple of hours, and we just don’t have the labor to do it,” Swanson said. “When we do local procurement, we really have to think about the time restraints … and we kind of just pick and choose when we’re going to do it.”

Kara Ignasiak, nutrition education consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, said this is a common barrier she hears from schools when talking to them about buying local. She works with AmeriCorps Wisconsin members to help local schools increase their buying of local foods. But Ignasiak said the process can take time.

“It’s a lot easier to buy through their regular distributors because it’s easy, quick online versus buying local from a farmer takes relationship building and extra time that food service directors don’t always have,” Ignasiak said.

She said some schools are so short-handed in their kitchens this year that food service directors are having to fill in on lunch lines to get students served.

Ignasiak’s program launched the AmeriCorps Wisconsin Local Foods Database in early 2021, creating lists of schools interested in buying locally and farms hoping to sell to them as a way to speed up that relationship building. She said they’ve seen quite a bit of interest from both sides this year, but it’s hard to know how much has been related to the current supply chain problems.

Regardless of why they want to buy local, Ignasiak is hoping these relationships will last for years to come.

“We really do hope that once some of these supply chain issues go away that that established relationship will be able to easily keep on going,” she said.

Swanson said prior to the pandemic, his school did a lot more to celebrate locally-sourced foods, like creating theme menus featuring a vegetable or doing farm-to-school events where each menu item came from a local farm. But much of that has fallen to the wayside as his staff focused on following COVID-19 safety protocols in the lunchroom.

“It’s difficult for us to get through a normal day at this point in time, let alone try to plan special events. But we still do a few here and there,” Swanson said.

He said the price of food is the other factor that can determine whether a school is interested in buying local. For example, Swanson said local apples in the fall cost the same as coming from a food vendor and the quality is much better. But vegetables are almost always more expensive in his experience.

Becker said she knows that pricing can be an issue for her school customers. She said some schools who are short on staff have been willing to pay more for easy-to-serve products like salad mix instead of having to process heads of lettuce. At the start of the school year, Becker said prices for locally grown cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are often comparable to or cheaper than what distributors can offer.

“It really varies in terms of what school district you’re talking to, the amount of money they spend on produce right now and then how they do their budgeting,” Becker said. “We’re at a moment right now because of universal school lunch that some districts have more money than they’ve ever had on hand. Which means that they are free to buy more or better quality fresh produce.”

The USDA has helped schools provide free meals to all students this year by making school meal programs more flexible and increased reimbursement rates available through June 2022.

Becker hopes this emphasis on making healthy foods available to all students will continue after the crisis of the pandemic is over. And local food producers will get to play an increasing role in providing those foods to students.