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CPS Lunchroom Workers Struggle With Food Shortages, COVID-19 Fears: ‘You Don’t Know How Stressful It Is To Come To Work’

The Chicagoans making school lunches are juggling COVID-19 concerns with staffing and supply chain issues while trying to keep kids fed.

Chicago Public Schools has struggled with lunch staffing issues in cafeterias.
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)/Flickr
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CHICAGO — Kim Jefferson has one word for lunchroom operations at the start of the school year for Chicago Public Schools: “headache.”

Jefferson, 50, a lunchroom manager at Hamline Elementary in Back of the Yards, made last-minute food substitutions, navigated a breakfast food shortage and wrangled half-empty delivery trucks during the first months of the school year.

Just when the delivery trucks started showing up fully stocked and product shortages eased, making it easier to feed the roughly 300 students at Hamline, the Omicron variant hit.

“Last week, the whole truck came,” Jefferson said. “They weren’t missing nothing. Nothing.”

The problem: This time around, it was the students who were missing. 

Widespread supply chain issues and a chaotic return to in-person instruction this year have placed a strain on CPS’ food programs. The district’s lunchroom managers have had to juggle last-minute menu swaps and an every-changing school culture, with COVID-19 concerns, quarantines and the now-ended standoff between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Rising cases of COVID-19 and international supply chain disruptions have made planning difficult: Lunchroom managers can’t predict what kind of fruits they’ll be able to serve, let alone whether children will be in the schools.

“It’s a wait-and-see game,” said one lunchroom manager at a Southwest Side elementary school who asked not to be identified.

The CPS meal program is the third largest K-12 food service in the United States and serves 75 million meals annually. And despite challenges during the pandemic, CPS’ Nutrition Support Services has “continued to serve our students healthy and nutritious meals,” CPS Press Secretary Sylvia Barragan said in a statement.

During the week-long standoff between CPS and the teachers union, lunchrooms stayed operational, with 88 percent of lunchroom attendants showing up Jan. 5-7 to prepare to-go meal kits for families in need, Barragan said. CPS served more than 48,000 meal kits last week, Barragan said.

Jefferson said her lunchroom served zero of the meal kits Thursday and 15 Friday.

Adding to the unpredictability: throughout the school year, a labor shortage has made it more challenging for schools to get meals to students.

“If someone calls off, there’s no pool,” said the lunchroom manager at a Southwest Side school. “CPS used to hire a pool of people. If my whole staff called off sick, I would be cooking.”

The manager said everyone in her lunchroom is vaccinated and has gotten a booster shot. But she worries there is not adequate contact tracing, testing and mask use in the schools to protect staff and communities — worries echoed by teachers during the recent standoff and by substitute teachers.

District officials have said CPS has increased safety mitigations and offers testing and vaccinations.

“CPS has always prioritized safety within our schools,” Barragan said in a statement. “Our lunchroom staff has always been required to wash their hands frequently and wear gloves. Following the Districts, COVID-19 mitigation strategies staff are now required to wear masks, maintain social distance and among other things, stay home if they are feeling sick.”

But CPS has “not provided safeguards,” said the lunchroom manager at a Southwest Side school. “You don’t know how stressful it is to come to work.”

Tilden High School in Fuller Park has a lunchroom staff of two people. When lunchroom manager Maureen Henderson, 59, called out sick one day in the fall, her supervisor from Aramark, CPS’ main food supplier, had to step in, she said.

Around 15 percent of the district’s lunchroom attendant jobs are unfilled, Barragan said. But Barragan said the roughly 150 vacant positions are not entirely out of the ordinary for the district.

“CPS, like other industries, has been impacted by a national labor shortage amid the pandemic,” Barragan said in a statement. “The district has worked to improve staffing through aggressive recruitment efforts.”

One of the other main challenges faced by lunchrooms this year is product shortages. More than 98 percent of school meal program directors nationally said menu items have not been available in sufficient quantities, according to a recent survey by the School Nutrition Association, an organization focused on school meal programs.

Bridget Page, 57, lunchroom manager of Back of the Yards College Prep, said supplies for her lunchroom improved in the two weeks before the holiday break, but she still had trouble stocking certain ingredients. 

“Before, we didn’t have jelly,” Page said. “Then, we get jelly, but no peanut butter. Why would you send peanut butter but no jelly? I have to go to other schools and say, ‘Hey, let’s swap.’”

Ana Lizama, 39, a mother of three children in CPS, said she’s seen a decline in the quality of the meal programs — including in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — this year.

“Before, my children never skipped lunch,” said Lizama, of Back of the Yards. “[Now, they] tell me that all they serve is peanut butter and jelly, but the jelly doesn’t taste the same.” 

Lizama has started packing most of their lunches herself. 

“The food isn’t good, it’s not good and it’s not nutritious,” Lizama said.

The pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain, leading to shortages and price increases, said Anna Costello, a professor of accounting at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in our history,” Costello said. “We should expect [a recovery is] at least two years out, perhaps more.” 

To address the supply chain issues until then, the federal Department of Agriculture has increased funding for school lunch programs in a rare mid-year adjustment to the reimbursement rate, first announcing a $1 billion increase in funding in December, and then an additional $730 million Friday. This breaks down to roughly 25 cents more per school lunch this year — a significant difference for cash-strapped programs dealing with higher product prices and labor shortages. 

Illinois will receive an estimated $377 million in additional funding from the agency, but it’s unclear when the funding will be distributed. 

In the meantime, CPS lunchroom workers said they will mask up and forge ahead. 

“We do pretty good to keep ourselves safe,” Jefferson said. “But I feel safer with the kids not here. You don’t know how people live. It’s hard to have them keep their masks on at school.”

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