EFFINGHAM — A confluence of driver and supply shortages have meant schools across Effingham County are struggling to find enough supply to serve students on a daily basis.
However, area superintendents and food service directors don't believe the delays will cause them to seriously curtail their ability to serve kids a hot meal every day for the foreseeable future.
Dieterich Unit 30 Superintendent Cary Jackson said during a school board meeting this week that the district didn't have enough drivers to get them the food and that they have had to make reductions to their menu each day.
"You've probably heard it from your kids that the menus have been adjusted lately," Jackson said. "(We have) less options (and) that's the direct result (of) the pandemic that we're in."
Because delivery trucks are making fewer deliveries to the district, the menus have been shrunk significantly, with just two options for lunchtime instead of the usual four. Jackson says that the school's food service provider, Opaa! Food Management of suburban St. Louis, bought up enough stock to get school districts like Dieterich through the first part of the school year.
However, he noted that stock is now dwindling, forcing the district to make those cuts to the menu.
"It's really been affecting us due to our supply and stock," Jackson said. "It's been an ongoing problem, back since the beginning of school."
Effingham Unit 40 is also seeing issues with food deliveries. Ryan Elsasser, the district's food service director, said that began with the first scheduled delivery this year.
"They called us before 7 a.m. and told us that all of our deliveries for that day were canceled, with no notice," Elsasser said. "There's really nowhere else to get the food at this time."
Elsasser noted that a combination of factors have led to the inability for districts like Unit 40 to get their food. In addition to not having enough drivers to deliver the food, there aren't enough workers at warehouses to fill the orders. With major worldwide supply chain issues, there isn't enough product on the shelves to be filled in the first place.
"It's a compounding of several things," Elsasser said.
Norma Koester, the food service director and executive secretary at Teutopolis Unit 50, rattled off a long series of changes that have been made to their schools' menu due to the issues: From having to replace chicken fillets with rib patties, to swapping out bags of chips due to a lack of stock. The district has even had trouble ordering powdered vinyl gloves for kitchen staff, instead having to switch to the non-powdered variety.
"Some things we subbed out and some things we didn't have a sub for," Koester said. "We've just had to reorder it two weeks later."
Altamont Unit 10 Superintendent Casey Adam said many other districts like hers are having to struggle through this, due to the shortage of available drivers. Like Dieterich, Altamont also uses Opaa! as its provider, so they've also had to cut back on their menu and provide fewer choices than normal.
"Whenever you see the writing on the wall and the way things are going, you have to make adjustments," Adam said. "Fairly early on, we realized the delays were ongoing. Our students had a larger number of choices every day when they go into the lunch line and now they are down to two choices."
Opaa! said in a statement that it has made adjustments to help better serve districts affected by the supply and driver shortages. In addition to making menu substitutions and reducing entrees, the company said that it was utilizing local grocery stores as a food source for local districts when deliveries are slow to come, in addition to asking staff to drive rented trucks on the weekends to provide food to districts that are seriously hurt by the situation.
"As school began and supply chain disruption grew, we developed contingency plans to ensure we meet our obligations," the company said. "With no clear resolution of the shortages in sight, our purchasing team will remain nimble, adapting to changing conditions and seeking additional ways to capitalize on our supplier relationships and bolster our supply chain."
Effingham and Teutopolis utilize Kohl Wholesale of Quincy to provide food. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the ever-changing menu and reduction in supply, the area superintendents and food service directors all believe that the shortages will not prevent their ability, at least in the short-term, to provide students with a hot, affordable meal each day.
Even so, there is a little bit of nervousness about what the future could hold. Elsasser believes that Unit 40 should be OK, but he didn't make any promises, noting that a worst-case scenario could mean the lack of a hot lunch option, trying to find another distributor or even asking their students to bring a lunch from home.
"If it continues long-term, then we may be looking at something and making harder choices," Elsasser said.
"We will always have a hot meal for our kids no matter what," said Jackson, the Dieterich superintendent. "We're going to make it happen."