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State official: 'I know that is breaking the spirit of a number of people in school meal services.'

PMG FILE PHOTO - Eighth-grade students at Stoller Middle School eat lunch in a packed cafeteria.Global supply chain issues are hitting school cafeterias in Oregon.

"The supply chain disruptions are impacting schools heavily and schools are struggling quite literally to be able to provide for their families," said Damasita Sanchez, manager of school nutrition programs for the Oregon Department of Education. "Some schools are having to cut back on what they can provide, and I know that is breaking the spirit of a number of people in school meal services, because we can't provide all that we want."

The Forest Grove School District contracts with Sodexo for school meal services. In a statement provided to Pamplin Media Group, the company said it's not immune to the problem.

"Sodexo is like many businesses facing challenges caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has impacted supply chains across every industry, including three primary channels of Sodexo's supply chain: growers and farmers, manufacturers and processors, and distributors. At our schools, there may be modified menus that reflect the availability of ingredients and other supplies," Sodexo said in a statement.

Elsewhere in Washington County, Beaverton and Hillsboro both have their own nutrition department in-house.

Charity Ralls, administrator for nutrition services in the Beaverton School District, and Nathan Roedel, executive director of nutrition services for the Hillsboro School District, said they start planning and ordering menus each February and March for the following school year.

Both the Beaverton and Hillsboro school districts — Washington County's largest, and the third- and fourth-largest districts in the state, respectively — say they have not faced a situation where they haven't been able to offer meals on a given day. But that's not to say the supply chain issues have been insignificant.

"This really doesn't compare to anything I've seen before. Usually the distributor might be out of one or two items, but they have alternatives to offer," said Ralls, who has been with Beaverton schools for over a decade. "Now it's the distributor saying, 'Sorry, I've got nothing to offer you."

Beaverton, which serves around 6,000 breakfasts and 20,000 lunches across 53 schools each day, and Hillsboro, which serves around 4,000 breakfasts and 10,000 lunches across 32 schools each day, both source food from Cisco.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made waivers available so that school districts can procure food from other sources in case of emergency.

Whole grains, beef, varieties of chicken beyond frozen patties, and cereal have all been particularly hard to come by this school year, causing cafeterias to limit varieties and repeat meals. In addition to ingredients, administrators say distributors have also faced a shortage of drivers.

Ralls added in addition to food, paper products are hard to come by, so her department has been making daily trips to the local chef store to see what is available.

Meanwhile, some distributors have raised the minimum amount of bulk foods available for purchase.

For example, Hillsboro used to buy bean burritos two pallets at a time but now must buy at least six. To work around the issue, Roedel said the district rents cold storage space by the pallet in Forest Grove — the sort of budget flexibility not available to every district.

"Last year with the pandemic, us and everyone's school meal service was down. We did about half as many meals as we're doing now, so the manufacturer backed off and reduced their workforce," Roedel said. "I don't think we could expect the supply chain to snap back just like that, but we're hoping this is resolved in the next three to six months."

Hillsboro has found one workaround for the global supply chain issues: buying local. The district sources some dairy from Medosweet Farm and some produce from Charlie's Produce, based in Portland.

"We've been able to get those products, no problem," Roedel said.

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