In Short

Oregon school districts navigating food shortages, supply chain issues

By: - October 6, 2021 5:35 am
Student getting served lunch at Salem school.

Soaring food prices have hit schools, the Department of Corrections and low-income Oregonians. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter file photo)

Not long before a recent nacho lunch day in the Hillsboro School District, Nate Roedel learned that he wouldn’t receive the 120 cases of tortilla chips he’d need to make more than 13,000 meals.

Luckily Roedel, executive director of nutrition services for the district, had gotten good at improvising. The last two months of food orders had resulted in a mixed bag of mostly missing items. 

“Everything is triage now,” Roedel said. 

He got in touch with Mission Foods, makers of Mission Tortilla Chips in McMinnville and Juanitas in Hood River. In the end, “We cleaned out the Hillsboro Costco of tortilla chips.”

Across the state and in some of the largest school districts like Portland Public Schools and the Beaverton School District, food managers are navigating incomplete or canceled food orders while trying to fulfill student breakfast, lunch and after school meals. It’s a problem nationwide. 

Labor shortages at factories and even shortages of truck drivers mean manufacturers can’t produce or deliver on the orders they take.

“Oftentimes, from a broadline distributor we won’t find out until the day before what we’re getting, and what we’re not getting,” Roedel said.

In Beaverton, Public Communications Officer Shellie Bailey-Shah wrote over email that school officials have turned to more local producers to fill gaps, but even that is causing issues because most other districts are doing the same. 

Further exacerbating issues in some schools is the shortages of workers in cafeterias. Roedel said he has 23 empty positions and 14 more to be filled when more students come back to in-person school. Because the number of students attending school or out in quarantine fluctuates so frequently, ordering the necessary amount of food is a challenge as well, and despite shifting to disposable cutlery and plates because of coronavirus transmission fears, schools like those in Beaverton have switched back to silverware.

Roedel suspects schools will be dealing with these supply issues for at least the next three to six months. But just last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced he’ll move $1.5 billion from a depression-era government fund to help schools across the country deal with these issues. Roedel said he’ll be curious how the department leverages the money to target labor and supplies. 

“From a boots-on-the-ground level I will say the way I read that was they’re throwing money at a problem,” he said. “But money isn’t the issue, it’s getting the product.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.