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Washington's school cafeterias face food, supply shortages due to pandemic disruptions

The global supply chain backup due to coronavirus pandemic is taking a bite out of school lunches.

BURLINGTON, Wash. — Pandemic-related supply chain issues are now hitting school cafeterias in Washington state. 

It's just one week into the new school year and districts are already experiencing shortages of some staple items and scrambling to come up with fixes. 

"We don't know week to week if we're gonna be able to get the food that we ordered," said Burlington-Edison School District Food Services Director Mark Dalton. "It's that tight in the industry."

As container ships carrying supplies from overseas sit backed up at ports throughout Puget Sound, Dalton said the issue goes far beyond what's inside the brown paper lunch sacks provided by schools to include the sacks themselves.

"It isn't just chicken nuggets. They're having a hard time getting supplies like plastic, paper bags and boxes because of labor shortages. They're even having a hard time finding drivers to get the food moved around the country," Dalton said.

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Since the start of the pandemic, Washington schools have been providing free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income. The effort comes to an extra 500 meals a day in Burlington alone, according to Dalton. 

Dalton said it's a real-time lesson in supply and demand.

"We always have to have something in our back pockets," said Dalton, "something in our fridges and freezers that we can pull out and put on the menu for the kids in a fast turnaround."

A compounding concern is that school districts can be fined, or have funding withheld by the federal government, for not meeting government nutrition requirements. School officials, however, believe talks are underway to loosen some of those regulations.

School cafeteria food must be more nutritious than the standard products bought off grocery store shelves. Pizza, for example, must be made with a wheat crust.

There are just a few distributors of that food in the U.S., which can make the menu more challenging for young, finicky eaters. 

"We have seen a few tears this year when things didn't go as planned," said Dalton.

That has administrators worried that some kids might not eat at all during the school day. But Dalton said he believes schools everywhere will make sure no kid goes hungry.

"It's a challenge," he said. "We will find products we can serve to the kids and hopefully the kids will enjoy them."