Servers at Buckner Performing Arts Elementary School work students through the lunch line on the last day of school before the holiday break. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)
Food service aides at Buckner Performing Arts Elementary School work students through the lunch line on Dec. 16, the last day of school before the holiday break. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Rows of racks in Wichita USD 259’s vast School Service Center on Hydraulic Street in northeast Wichita are the second-to-last stops before distribution to the district’s dozens of schools.

In the adjacent industrial kitchen, pizzas roll through conveyor-belt ovens, while enormous mixers pipe mashed potatoes into a machine that seals the food into large plastic pouches.

It takes this operation, plus on-site kitchens at the district’s middle and high schools, to churn out 50,000 breakfasts and lunches a day, give or take. 

Especially in the food warehouse, it’s easy to forget that those thousands of meals end up in children’s bellies. So David Paul, director of child nutrition for the district, likes to humanize the operation. He thinks of the job as being in the food and people business.

“Our job is to prepare them, and we all know the old adage that hungry kids can’t learn,” he said. “We can be that first face they see and that friendly smile each morning.”

The challenge for the district, then, is finding food and people this school year.

Schools have not been immune to the labor and supply shortages affecting businesses across the country, Paul said. But while it’s helped that all children continue to receive free meals through the temporarily extended summer meal program, this year has shaped up as the child nutrition program’s toughest one in the pandemic.

“The supply chain is such that we’re having to modify our menu on pretty much a daily basis because we can’t get chicken strips, or we can’t get chicken nuggets,” he said. “For school breakfast and lunch, this has been a worse year than even the COVID year.”

One pallet of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish holds 20 boxes, which in turn each contain about 300 individual cracker bags. Wichita USD 259 child nutrition workers estimate that the pallets shown here will supply the district’s elementary schools for a few days. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Short on supplies

One of the problems Wichita USD 259’s child nutrition department has had to solve this school year is relearning how to make a PB&J.

“We used to get Uncrustables, those little PB&J circle sandwiches that come premade and frozen — kids love them,” Paul said. “We’re on allocation for them now, which means that if you get some, you get what you get and be happy about it.”

For a while, the district was able to contract with another PB&J purveyor. But then it ran out of bread.

“We can still buy peanut butter, and we can buy jelly, and we can buy bread — for the time being,” Paul said. “So now we’re making our own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, at least for the elementary schools.”

Even when Wichita USD 259 can find reliable vendors, prices have skyrocketed. Districts are competing with each other for scarce sources of food and supplies that still meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for free-meal reimbursement.

For example, the disposable trays the district uses to serve meals used to cost about 8 cents apiece. Now the price ranges between 16 and 25 cents — if the district catches a lucky price, Paul said. That adds up, especially when Wichita USD 259 goes through about a semitrailer’s worth of trays every month.

Cheryl Johnson, director of the Kansas State Department of Education’s Child Nutrition and Wellness Team, said Wichita isn’t the only Kansas school district seeing these kinds of supply issues.

“Kids are still getting fed,” she said. “They’re still getting reimbursable meals, with all of the necessary components. But what we are seeing is that schools are having to be nimble, or make menu changes without much notice.”

In Wichita, the meal program tries to keep meals on a six-week rotation, but Paul said students are seeing some repeated meals. In years past, students had a protein-rich food — like yogurt, cheese or eggs — as an option for breakfast, but the district stopped offering that choice to save supplies for lunches.

Prepared meals at the Wichita USD 259 School Support Center wait to be trucked to the district’s elementary schools. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

The people business

As a food service aide, Kristen Graham starts her work day at the district’s central kitchen loading food warming cabinets onto trucks that head to 65 elementary schools. Then she goes to one or two of the schools to serve breakfast and lunch.

Three years into the job, she still loves it.

“I worked 20 years in fast food, and I would do anything to keep my job,” she said. “During the summer food program, I got a letter saying, ‘Thank you for feeding us all summer long.’ It’s just sweet.”

This year, though, more of the department’s workers — including Paul and other administrators — have been tagging along to help fill a shortage of cafeteria workers around Wichita.

At full strength in a normal year, Wichita USD 259 employs about 425 child nutrition workers as cafeteria staff, truck drivers, food preparers and other positions. The district, though, had only about 300 child nutrition workers midway through the summer, Paul said.

Since then, hiring has picked up and the department filled some of those positions. But as of mid-December, the district was still down about 45 child nutrition workers.

“This has been the biggest struggle,” Paul said. “People have retired early or have gotten other work. We lost a lot of people throughout COVID, but we’ve gotten a lot back. It’s the same thing as restaurants, but we’ve made it work.”

One of the biggest perks of being a cafeteria worker is also one of its biggest drawbacks: It’s a part-time position that is highly dependent on school being in session. Paul said those kinds of half-day positions turn over three or four times a school year.

That’s why the child nutrition department is exploring ways to create more full-time positions with benefits, where workers might follow a schedule like Graham’s and split their time between serving meals at schools and preparing them at the central kitchen and warehouse.

Another possibility is shifting more of the food preparation work to elementary school cafeterias. Currently, elementary school meals are prepared, cooked and sealed at the district’s central kitchen, then sent to schools.

But by retrofitting some elementary school cafeterias with bigger kitchen spaces, workers at those schools could have a more traditional eight-hour work day if they’re preparing and cooking food on-site.

The challenge is that many of Wichita USD 259’s elementary schools are short on space, and converting cafeterias would likely take a few years anyway.

“In some of our schools, the kitchen is only so big, and they might not even be set up for the kind of electrical we’d need,” Paul said. “In schools where the cafeteria is also the gym, there isn’t space for the milk coolers overnight.”

Even though Wichita USD 259’s food sources have been more limited this school year, the district has tried to give students a few options for each lunch’s entree. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Free lunch helped. Could it continue?

Even in a tough school year for school nutrition programs, a saving grace has been the extension of the USDA’s program that gives all students free breakfasts and lunch, regardless of their families’ income levels.

In recent years, about 3 in 4 Wichita USD 259 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals anyway through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program. The regular summer meal program — which has always fed free meals in the summer and was extended through the end of this school year as part of the national COVID-19 response — reimburses the district at a higher rate for the meals it serves. Paul said that has helped with the higher cost of some food supplies.

Paul said it appears there’s little support in Congress for another continuation of the universal free school meal program. But he and other child nutrition directors in some of the country’s urban districts are paying close attention to a provision in the stalled Build Back Better Act that could pave a way for most students to get free meals.

Under the USDA’s existing Community Eligibility Provision, schools with more than 40% of students from low-income backgrounds are eligible to offer no-cost meals to all of their students.

The provision also allows families to skip the regular free-reduced lunch income application, while schools collect income information from other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Build Back Better Act would lower the threshold for that provision to 25% and increase the reimbursement amounts schools get through 2030. The legislation would also allow entire states to implement the Community Eligibility Provision, as well as sanction schools to use Medicaid eligibility as another path to free or reduced-price meals. Kansas is one of eight states that is already participating in a pilot of the Medicaid eligibility program.

Johnson, the state education department child nutrition director, said any expansion of free meals has generally meant more participation in school nutrition programs. Kansas schools served 1.5 million free meals in August 2021, or 200,000 more than in August 2019, she said.

“Everyone can feel free to take part, and that’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “They’re fueled and ready to learn that way.”

Paul said the legislation would lift a burden from his department and Wichita families.

“It’s a lot to manage, especially for our schools when they have to act as debt collectors,” Paul said. “They’re the ones sending letters home from school. It’s the kind of thing you hear about when it makes national news because a school took a lunch tray away from a kid.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.