Kentucky schools deal with the rising cost of food in the lunchroom

Rising costs in school lunch rooms
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 9:17 PM EST
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HARRISON COUNTY, Ky. (WKYT) - This week, several central Kentucky school districts went mask optional as COVID-19 cases continue to drop.

It is a small step forward to a more normal school day after nearly two years of dealing with a pandemic. From remote learning, to quarantines, to bus driver shortages, districts have had to overcome immense challenges. One of those is the rising cost of food.

In January, the USDA expanded school lunch funding by $750 million to help with higher food prices.

WKYT’s Amber Philpott takes you inside one district’s real life math problem to show you how schools are getting creative when the pandemic serves up higher prices at the lunch table.

The motto on the sign at Southside Elementary in Harrison County is pretty self-explanatory: Plant, nourish and grow.

Outside, planter boxes help students learn to grow things, but inside you could say the students are really the young plants actually being nourished to grow.

“Food is essential to learning for kids,” said Austin Dacci, Harrison County Food Services Director.

Dacci oversees the meals of 2,800 students daily.

“Pizza day is always number one priority, everybody loves pizza day,” said Dacci.

Nutrition is key and what his staff serves up is critical to the success of each and every student, but the pandemic hasn’t made that easy.

“The problem has been kind of two fold, not only are we having food shortages, but labor shortages as well. At one point I had a third of my staff, nine people out,” said Dacci.

One of the biggest problems facing the lunchroom is the rising cost of food and supplies. Since 2019, Dacci says he has seen supply cost jump 16% and the food cost 24% at times.

“That might not seem huge to a lot of people, but when you are dealing with a multi-million budget that is hundreds of thousands of dollars that we have to cut corners elsewhere in the budget to kind of maintain it,” said Dacci.

And it’s not just the rising cost, it’s chasing down the actual food.

According to a School Nutrition Association study, 98% of schools reported dealing with food shortages. Dacci often places his order to only find many items are not available, leaving his team scrambling.

“I’ve become an expert on the delivery dates on when Walmart gets its produce deliveries. We will go to Lexington, to other secondary vendors and try to grab whatever we can and hope by the time the truck comes on Thursday that we have a workable menu for the next week,” said Dacci.

Harrison County isn’t alone. Fleming Co. Superintendent Bryan Creasman says he’s seen his own food service director go pick up food because a vendor didn’t have enough drivers to deliver it.

His district has seen a 20% increase on both food and paper products, but no matter the cost it’s something vitally important to his students.

“Is the food quality because chances are most of our kids this is the only meals, they get breakfast and lunch. So it really keeps a lot of people up at night trying to think, ‘okay how are we going to feed kids the next day?’” said Bryan Creasman, Fleming Co. Superintendent.

For Dacci he credits his team, for solving daily what seems to be a real life math problem of supply and demand.

Amber Philpott asked, “What does it mean when you see the kids that are happy, healthy and they are fed?”

“That is the most rewarding part of the job,” said Dacci.

What used to call for creativity in recipes in the cafeteria, now calls for creativity financially to serve up what these students need to keep them both growing and learning in school.

Dacci says that he is starting to see things improve a bit, but he has been told by suppliers like GFS to expect shortages for the next ten to 24 months.

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