A nationwide, transportation-based food shortage is impacting what's on local school menus. Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — A nationwide food shortage is impacting what’s available on local school menus.

Arlis “Artie” M. Frego, the director of food service management for the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said BOCES saw shortages on most of its recent initial food and supply orders. He said food and supplies were sometimes hit or miss.

Mr. Frego oversees the food service program for 16 of the 18 component districts in the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES region. He said he talked with officials from Renzi, the main food distributor this year.

“A lot of it is transportation issues,” Mr. Frego said. ‘A lot of the processing plants are down due to COVID; they’re having trouble getting their supplies too, because of the transportation issues, so a lot of it’s directly involved with the transportation issue. Right now there’s one driver for every seven truckloads.”

He does a daily Google search for “school meal supply chain issues” to keep up with the latest information.

“You get a ton of recent articles. They’re not old; some of them are like 20 minutes old,” he said. “That’s how bad it is throughout the nation right now.”

He said he also researched Costco.

“They’re starting to put limits on how much stuff you can buy because they’re anticipating toilet paper shortages again, paper towels, that sort of thing,” Mr. Frego said.

In terms of school lunches, “we’re using what we can get,” he said.

“If we can’t get one product, we’re moving on to another product that we can get,” he said. “It’s really getting difficult. So far no kid has missed a meal yet.”

Making sure they have what they need involves a six-week lead time.

“I have six weeks’ lead time to put in some orders, so we have to give six weeks’ notice of time on what product we need. We do not anticipate this changing in the near future,” Mr. Frego said. “The USDA and the companies I’m dealing with are telling us just to be prepared when you place an order, prepare to know that you’re not going to get everything that you ordered.”

Another aspect that makes it difficult is every student is entitled to free meals this year.

“Our numbers are up generally at most of the schools,” he said. “I think it’s a little more challenging for food service directors this year because last year we were able to do bulk packaging and we were serving basically meals out of a bag in a parking lot. This year, the kids are in school, so it’s an individual meal, which is just a lot more complicated.”

Still, Mr. Frego said, BOCES is “always going to have food to feed the children.”

“It may just be a little different than what’s on the printed menu,” he said. “We’re always going to have some sort of product to feed the children. They’re not going to go without a meal, I can guarantee that. But, it may look totally different than we planned for.”

He said the food service directors in each district have met the challenge.

“We expect tremendous challenges to remain for the rest of the year, but we’ve been pretty good about making sure kids have access to food,” he said. “Even during the midst of the initial pandemic, the food service directors did a great job. Schools have some great food service directors. They all meet the challenge every day. I’m proud of them.”

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