Where's the peanut butter? Supply shortages are changing food menus at some suburban schools

  • Quest Food Management Services employees Tim Almy, left, and Vicky Shargo package breakfast and lunch meals for the grab-and-go free meal distribution program at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview last school year. This year, nationwide supply-chain issues are causing a scarcity of food items and related products.

    Quest Food Management Services employees Tim Almy, left, and Vicky Shargo package breakfast and lunch meals for the grab-and-go free meal distribution program at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview last school year. This year, nationwide supply-chain issues are causing a scarcity of food items and related products. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2020

  • Suburban school districts are dealing with supply chain shortages that are affecting lunch menus.

    Suburban school districts are dealing with supply chain shortages that are affecting lunch menus. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/3/2021 10:26 AM

From skipping peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to altering food menus in school cafeterias, suburban districts are scrambling to find enough supplies to feed students amid global supply-chain interruptions.

With pandemic-related labor shortages, food distributors and manufacturers are struggling to find assembly line workers and truck drivers to deliver their products to consumers. Those supply-chain issues are expected to worsen in coming months.

 

Nationwide, schools are facing shortages of certain cafeteria staples: chicken, beef, turkey, eggs, bread, apple juice, vegetables, pancakes, waffles, paper plates and plastic cutlery.

"Paper goods is where we are really struggling," said Elena Hildreth, director of food and nutrition services for Elgin Area School District U-46.

While securing supplies of plates, trays and napkins has been a challenge, for a while the state's second-largest school district was scrounging for peanut butter.

That's when district officials got creative.

U-46's produce purveyor, Get Fresh Produce Inc. of Bartlett, was able to secure peanut butter in bulk.

Then its fresh bread vendor, Chicago-based Alpha Baking Co., helped get freshly made pizza crusts from Olympia Foods of Franklin Park by the truckload for its secondary schools. And uniform supplier Warehouse Direct of Des Plaines now is finding U-46's paper plates, Hildreth said.

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"We've tried to think outside of the box and reach out to business partners and allow them to help source items that they don't normally carry," she said.

Finding substitutes for favorite menu items can be difficult, but that doesn't mean kids are going hungry. U-46 serves more than 12,000 breakfasts, nearly 26,000 lunches, and between 3,000 and 4,000 suppers daily.

"We have plenty of food," Hildreth said. "Nobody is going hungry. It is free breakfast and free lunch for every single student, and we are prepared for that. The entrees is where we are really struggling, anything that is requiring any type of processing ... whether it is chopped, diced, precooked, that's where we're seeing most of the challenges. Everyone's in the same boat."

At Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, officials are seeing shortages in beef, chicken, juice, breakfast items and nonfood supplies.

"It's not surprising to receive a delivery with only half the number of items ordered," spokeswoman Erin Holmes said. "Planning ahead is a necessity. Costs continue to increase. For the past month we've received several notices weekly from vendors of price increases."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Getting into the winter months and holiday season, suburban school officials are bracing for a greater scarcity of goods and more frequent menu changes.

"When it comes to providing meals for students, we have had minor substitutions here and there, but have only needed to swap out a side item (vegetable or fruit) to this point," said Brooke Hagstrom, spokeswoman for Woodland District 50 in Gurnee.

But officials are working on stockpiling larger quantities of some items, such as plates and napkins, to stave off future shortages.

"We are gearing up to order what we need for next school year several months earlier than we normally would," Hagstrom said.

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