Districts scramble to feed students after supplier withdraws

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Several dozen school districts in northwest Minnesota scramble to acquire food to feed students after their supplier unexpectedly terminates their contract due to supply chain issues and labor shortages artwork.

Fifty-seven school districts that obtain their food through Lakes Country Service Cooperative were affected when food distributor Cash-Wa terminated its contract with the cooperative earlier this month. The supplier notified the cancellation in September, saying it could no longer meet the needs of the districts. The disruption created a logistical headache for school districts, many of which were already struggling to source certain ingredients and staff their cafeterias.

“It’s a bit of every district on its own right now,” said Crookston Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson. “It’s week after week whether or not we can get food.”

The Crookston district is currently bouncing from one temporary supplier to another, trying to get food “where we can,” Olson said.

Minnesota schools and their students are another group feeling the effects of labor and material shortages that are disrupting the supply chain in many industries.

The Minnesota Department of Education is working to help the districts, by making an emergency contract with a trucking company to transport some of the United States Department of Agriculture’s staple foods – like meat, produce, cheese and rice – from a warehouse in the southeastern metropolitan city of Newport to multiple Up North locations.

“We continue to work with the co-op on a long-term solution,” state Department of Education spokesperson Ashleigh Norris said. She noted that the cooperative had made an offer for a new food supplier but had not received any requests.

Some school districts have taken it upon themselves to find solutions.

Thief River Falls Public Schools initially struggled to find a new food supplier who would deliver to their schools. But the district recently contracted with another company and since then “has found food very well to feed our children,” said Superintendent Donita Stepan.

Public schools in Perham-Dent, about 70 miles east of Fargo, use two temporary food providers, said Krystal Boyd, district food services director. Neither provider currently has enough food or delivery drivers to meet district needs on their own.

“It’s just a headache for the food service managers here. Not just us, but the cooks as well, because it turns our daily menus upside down,” Boyd said.

Condiments, whole grain ingredients and breaded chicken, including nuggets and fillets, are hard to come by due to shortages, Boyd said.

To make matters worse, school staff have to order unfamiliar food brands, as the most recognizable items are scarce.

“There was a day where we threw away over 250 servings,” Boyd said, referring to items that she said didn’t taste good. “If I don’t eat it, I won’t expect these kids to eat it.”

Minnesota Department of Education deputy commissioner Daron Korte said the disruption revealed problems with the way food is distributed in rural schools. Small regional food suppliers may not be as reliable when there are labor and material shortages, he said.

The Department of Education is looking for a possible long-term solution. He launched offers to build more warehouses that store USDA’s staple foods so that school districts across the state can access them when needed. Currently, the only warehouse stocking USDA products is the one in Newport.

“It would create more of a regional system where there would be three or four warehouses across the state that store USDA food,” Korte said. “Our role as a state is to try to expand this program, to make it more accessible and available to the districts.”

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth

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