Farm to School
A Holmen School District student eats an apple grown at Ecker's Apple Farm near Trempealeau. The district receives apples from the orchard, an example of Wisconsin school districts partnering with local providers. (Photo courtesy of Holmen School District)

To address the issue and help schools and Wisconsin farmers, many of whom are struggling financially, organizations are partnering to better link farmers to schools.

Food service managers in schools across Wisconsin typically plan weeks or months ahead when ordering items for meals, but these days those efforts are often day-to-day because procuring food has become especially challenging as supply chain disruptions continue. 

State agriculture officials hope renewed emphasis on an effort to connect schools with local farmers could help bridge that gap. However, in the meantime, staff coordinating meals report problems ordering numerous foods. 

In many cases, they said, finding available whole-grain products is especially difficult. Others report they can’t find enough chicken, pork, and beef. Still others said they can’t get enough dairy products or fresh fruits and vegetables. 

“We are struggling to find products every day,” said Michael Gasper, nutrition services director in the Holmen School District. “Sometimes it’s chicken, sometimes it’s beef, sometimes it’s pork. Sometimes it’s something else. It’s a moving target, and we never know where the shortage is going to be next.”

Such difficulties obtaining enough food for school meal programs have become a growing concern, according to schools and agriculture leaders across Wisconsin. Continued supply chain disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic have made procuring food difficult since this school year began, and the situation has become more problematic, they said. 

“It was a really rocky start to this school year with the food supply problems related to the pandemic,” said April Yancer, a Farm to School and Institution program specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “And since then it’s only gotten worse.”

High demand for products as schools resumed educating students in person this school year, combined with gaps in the supply chain caused by labor and product shortages, have many schools scrambling to find enough available food for students, education and agriculture leaders across the state said. 

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Food service directors said they are often forced to revamp meal plans because of a lack of products. In many cases, entire meal plans have been reformulated because so few of the planned-on foods are available, they said.

Oftentimes, they said, food delivery trucks show up at schools with partial loads, with many items that were ordered missing. On other occasions deliveries contain alternatives to food ordered, and sometimes trucks just don’t show up at all. 

“Things we’ve always been able to get, now we’re scrambling to find replacements for,” Gasper said. “I’ve been in the food service business for 35 years, 15 of those at the K-12 school level, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

School food service directors typically are able to plan ahead for food orders, but with current supply chain challenges, that often isn’t possible, said Susan Bostian Young, a school nutrition consultant with the state Department of Public Instruction.

“With what we’re seeing with supply chains right now,  much of the planning gets thrown out the window because the reality of what is available to them is very difficult,” Bostian Young said.

In addition to food, food service directors said they are struggling to find such mealtime basics as food trays, tin foil and paper containers. When they’re unable to find those items from their normal suppliers, they scan online shopping options but often can’t find what they need, they said.

Adding to challenges is a staffing shortage. Yancer said a survey of school kitchen staff across the state showed 75% had too few employees, a number she said has grown as more staff leave because of stress and opportunities to earn more money in other food service jobs. 

“When you have such an inconsistent food supply and decreased staff availability, it makes for a very challenging situation,” Yancer said. 

The meatballs that are part of this meal served in the Holmen School District were made from an animal raised as part of a food program that district operates. State agriculture and education officials are trying to expand the Farm to School program that links school food programs and local farmers. (Photo courtesy of the Holmen School District)

Program Could Address a Growing Need 

In an effort to improve the situation, DATCP and Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) on Tuesday sponsored a webinar titled “Bridging the Gap: Connecting Farm to School” to discuss the food needs in state schools. Staff members of DATCP and DPI highlighted the Farm to School program they said could provide farmers with much-needed income and schools with nutritious food while helping alleviate supply chain-induced shortages. 

Webinar speakers noted opportunities to educate producers and local food businesses to partner with schools. To address the concern and help schools and Wisconsin farmers, many of whom are struggling financially, WFU, DATCP, and DPI are partnering with other organizations to better link farmers to schools.

“Growing the Farm to School program could play an important role in helping schools overcome supply chain issues,” Bostian Young said. DPI and DATCP are working to find ways to more effectively connect farmers and schools to grow the effort. Two proposed bills in the Wisconsin Legislature would provide an additional $900,000 to Farm to School during the next two years.  

A 2019 survey showed more than 80% of 477 Wisconsin public and private schools participate in Farm to School at some level, whether buying from local farmers, educating about the program, or growing a garden.

Supply chain issues exposed by the coronavirus pandemic could actually help Farm to School expand, Yancer said. Those gaps have shown the need to shorten the supply chain and reduce opportunities for problems to occur, and how simpler links between farmers and schools seemingly would be much less subject to disruptions. 

Problems with supply chains “is helping move this effort forward more quickly,” she said of Farm to School. “This has shown us that there are tremendous opportunities for new partnerships.”

‘A Reliable Food Source’

Jesse Padron, food service director for the Oneida Nation School System just west of Green Bay, agrees with that sentiment. Students in that district have had access to meat, bread, and other foods this school year, in large part because of existing agreements with local and regional producers. 

But the shortage of available food has impacted his district too, Padron said, noting that fresh fruits and vegetables have become increasingly difficult to find. 

Padron said his district has been able to maintain its entree items but has had to replace side-dish choices with available foods. “The availability of many foods just isn’t there right now,” he said.

Padron and other food service directors said they try to order foods containing whole grains and to avoid processed foods. But many said they have been forced to resort to more processed–and less nutritious–options because sometimes they are the only ones available.

Growing the Farm to School program would increase purchasing options, Padron said, and ensure that students would have access to high-quality food while helping local economies. 

“We are working to get farmers and distributors involved in this. It absolutely makes sense,” he said. 

As Farm to School staff are working to expand the program, they realize the need to network more effectively, Yancer said. The message that local food producers can be an important part of solving food needs is finding an increasingly receptive response, she said. 

“Local food producers can help feed their communities,” she said. “Especially during this uncertain time, they can provide a reliable food source, and that is something we really need right now.”