MORRISON, Colo. — Lunch time is often the part of the school day students look forward to most.
“I get to sit with my friends, and I'm not hungry anymore,” said 5th-grader Emma.
But this year, lunchtime across the country looks different. There are fewer options for students for entrees, fruits and vegetables.
“The menu will be drastically changing,” said Lori Farley, who runs the cafeteria at Red Rocks Elementary in Colorado. “There are days that we don't get in the supplies that we need.”
Those days are now happening all too often.
“I've been in food service for 14 years, and this is very unprecedented,” said Farley.
Farley said some of the specialty products are back-ordered or don’t come in when they are scheduled to arrive.
“Twisted breadsticks are hard to come by, which is a favorite for kiddos,” said Farley.
Handfuls of meals are no longer on the menu, but short staffing is also making lunchtime hard to handle.
Farley is alone preparing breakfast and lunch most days. Her kitchen used to have two staff members.
“We've had to shift into simpler meals like a sun butter sandwich and string cheese or a yogurt meal to help alleviate some of the stress; stress on our staff,” said Farley.
The stress stretches from the schools to the warehouses that supply them.
“This is not a short-term problem,” said Beth Wallace, president of the National School Nutrition Association. “This is a nationwide supply chain struggle that we're going through right now, and it affects all parts of the country in different ways.”
Wallace said with the strict nutritional requirements for school lunches, many manufacturers are just not making as many of the special products anymore, and what’s available is more expensive.
From bread to frozen foods, to paper goods, everything is in short supply.
Wallace said it’s gotten so bad for some schools, they don’t always have a balanced meal for kids every single day.
“One of the directors from another state said, ‘I couldn't get any vegetables' or 'I couldn't get any fruit. I did my best and we just didn't have any,'” said Wallace.
Wallace is also struggling to staff her warehouse. She raised wages and is doing all she can to entice people to join her team.
“It's real. The labor shortage is real. I experience it every day,” said Wallace. “We normally have about 400 to 450 employees. We are down now and have continued to be down about 100 to 110 employees, and we can’t hire people.”
All these empty shelves and staffing shortages mean more to Wallace than just filling up a warehouse.
“Absolutely having the right nutrition and setting you up with a full tummy when you get ready to learn today is key. That is what sets you up for success, for learning all day long. And we have believed that for our entire career, and we think this is just a golden opportunity to kind of see that when kids are well-nourished, they learn better,” said Wallace.
This year, more kids than ever need those meals. The USDA is providing free breakfast and lunch for all students this year because of the pandemic.
Wallace said she’s seen a huge increase in students eating meals from school—all over the country.
“The kids are at the heart of this. This is all about the kids, and we've got to get kids back in schools learning and back in that process that might make them successful humans,” said Wallace.
With every struggle the adults are juggling, only some of the students seem to notice.
“Maybe I wish there could be something else to eat instead of just the same things over and over,” said Emma, who is in 5th grade.
But, Emma did say she was happy with the food that was served in her cafeteria.
Overall, most students weren’t bothered.
“The lunch ladies don't bring it up, so we don't we don't notice,” said Emma.
“We strive to, you know, keep it behind the scenes,” said Farley. “We don't want anybody to feel, or to see our struggle.”
“As long as I get to eat, I'm happy,” said Joe, a 5th-grader.
The cafeteria staff and those managing this struggle for students across the country are prepared for this hardship to last months, but no matter what, both Wallace and Farley said they are happy to hustle if it means students stay full.