Supply chain and labor shortages hit Lake Oswego School District food services
In the commercial kitchen nestled in Lake Oswego High School, nutrition service workers criss-cross one another as they prepare for an incoming group of hungry students.
Among them is Cristabol Castro, the new director of food services, when he is not navigating, he is jumping into the kitchen to help his staff face a whole new set of obstacles as the Lake Oswego School district follows a national trend of labor shortages and issues with supply chains — both of which have forced the nutrition staff to get creative.
Shortages of staff and food hit hard
Routines are ever shifting in Lake Oswego cafeterias.
At the start of the academic year, the food service department had 12 returning staff members when it should have had about 39 employees. Returning to the year with only 39% of staff needed for the crew, was "very, very low" and concerning, said Castro.
In November the district rose back up to 80% but is still looking for about 6 more hands on deck as Castro is afraid the lack of employees will lead to existing staff burnout.
Nutrition workers who signed on to work three hours are now working upwards of six, said Castro. And they are constantly bouncing between different schools to alleviate the shortage.
"It has been one of the most challenging years when it comes to staff, but we're slowly getting there," he said.
Indeed, Castro is hopeful that everything will work in the district's favor in the end. He accredits some of this optimism to the support the community has lended since the start of the academic year.
"Thankfully, we've had a lot of people from the community interested in working as substitutes. So, it's been nice to get some support from moms or whoever else is interested," he said.
Another piece of his optimism is embedded in his confidence with his staff.
"My staff loves and feels a lot of pride in what they do. I have some of the best staff members here in the Portland area," he said. "I know they are going to show up to work every day and love what they do —then they're going to come out with some good product and make a lot of kids happy."
But amid a labor shortage, the LO nutrition staff faces a new set of challenges as cafeteria workers are continually forced to rethink aspects of how they distribute food. From distribution delays to food arriving with tight expiration dates, the school district has had to scramble to get quality food on students' plates.
The root of this issue lies with the mainline distributor, Syco — a wholesale company. The national company has experienced stocking issues, mainly due to truck driver shortages, reduction of products and manufacturing plants closing down.
In effect, about 60-70% of the district's orders are being fulfilled. In a normal school year, a fulfil order at 95% is considered "a very bad week," according to Castro.
"Basically (it) means that if I order for example 10 pieces, I'm only going to get six," he said.
Up until a couple weeks ago, the district had issues surrounding milk delivered with expiration dates within a few days. Castro said usually milk has a timeline of two weeks or more. This leads to a lot of waste, but he has seen some improvements.
The free lunch program that is available for LO students has exacerbated shortages. Castro said about half of all high schoolers eat school lunch every day. A big jump from previous years.
"That's one of the big changes we're having at the high schools: Almost half the kids enroll (in the lunch program)," Castro said. "So that's the great thing to see."
The district has experienced a lot of supply chain issues, especially towards the beginning of the academic year. The shortage of product adjusts how the district uses money and forces the team to limit aspects of lunch.
"This just allows us to be a little bit more creative with our menu. If something's out, we usually try to substitute that item with a similar item, and make sure students still enjoy each meal," Castro said.
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