How do you turn one case of waffles into 1,500 breakfasts?
Jill Dunn, general manager of Albany County School District #1 Food Services, faced this challenge recently in coping with delivery interruptions of food and supplies the district needs every day for its nearly 1,500 breakfasts and 2,000 school lunches.
“It’s like you see in the stores. One week you see the items that you need and the next week something that you need is out of stock,” Dunn said.
“For example, obviously we order in bulk. When we order something it’s not going to be one or two cases of something, it’s going to be 14 or 15 cases,” Dunn said. “Usually I get 11 cases of waffles. Yesterday, instead of 11 cases, I got one case.”
That meant some quick menu adjustments for many of the district’s schools, she said. It means making sure that everyone at a given school gets the same meal, but menus may change from location to location.
“You look at what you have on hand and you try and do what you can do with it, so you’re giving the students at each school the same thing. We’ve had to finagle it so, for example, we had 150 muffins. That went to one school. And then we had 300 packs of cereal, and that went to another school,” Dunn explained. “There’s a lot of finessing that goes on with this.”
The hit-and- miss issue of ordering is felt keenly in paper products, she said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants and other food distributors went from washable to disposable dishes. Nationally, there has been more takeout and more individually wrapped foods. Eight-ounce bowls with lids are at a premium, Dunn said, even from large suppliers.
Dunn said she tries to get commitments from her suppliers, but often hears, “Don’t count on it.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations require school lunches to include a whole-grain product, a serving of a fruit and a vegetable, protein and a choice of milk.
The district had been offering 1% white or skim, but the supply of chocolate skim suddenly dried up.
“They don’t give you a lot of notice,” Dunn said. The district’s supplier said, “‘We didn’t give you any chocolate milk today and we didn’t increase your order of white, so I guess you’re going to just have to figure it out.’”
Fortunately, Dunn said, chocolate milk is again flowing through the supply chain.
“We find other ways to make things work,” she said. “It takes a whole mindset of ,‘What are you going to do?’”
Since COVID-19 started, schools have accommodated children’s lunches with makeshift cafeteria seating in gyms or classrooms, with students sitting 6 feet apart. Some are set up for cafeteria-style service, other meals are served in boxes.
In addition to being nutritious, she said the food has to be something children are willing to eat. They are especially fond of popcorn chicken, pizza, chili, nachos, tacos, cheeseburgers and barbecued pulled pork sandwiches.
“You want it kid-friendly,” she said. “Parents may not want the stuff, but we want the kids to eat it. For example, the pulled pork is on a whole-grain bun and it’s reduced fat and sodium barbecue sauce. We’re watching salt levels and fat levels.”
Cassandra Bushman, food service administrative assistant, has three children who regularly eat breakfast and lunch at Spring Creek or Beitel elementary schools and Laramie Middle School.
She said her children look forward to eating at school, though they are sometimes disappointed if one of their favorite items gets swapped out at the last minute.
“They notice, but my kids are a bit more understanding. They know ahead of time that maybe we didn’t get the chili in for the chili-Frito pie, or the Fritos,” Bushman said. “But we can’t communicate with everyone on a dime.”
For the most part, Bushman said, parents are understanding about changes in menus and don’t complain.
“No one is really upset about it. Everybody — with everything going on — has more important things to do,” she said.