Prince George’s County Public Schools says it will stop handing out free suppers to some students starting next week, citing supply chain issues and national shortages.
Students enrolled in before- and after-school enrichment programs will continue to receive supper, but all other students will lose access, according to the school system, which notified parents of the move in a newsletter and by a robocall.
In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a plan to extend free meals at schools throughout the county through the end of the 2021-2022 school year amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
“With meals being free for all students nationwide, increased demand has placed a strain on food companies,” school spokeswoman Meghan Gebreselassie told WTOP in an email.
The number of students who will no longer get free supper is unclear, but Gebreselassie said roughly 36,631 suppers have been passed out each day so far this school year.
While free breakfast and lunch service will continue in schools along with weekly meal distribution for virtual learning students, families should anticipate some menu changes as the school’s nutrition team “explores different options and meal substitutions in light of the supply shortage,” Gebreselassie said.
About three weeks into the school year, the school system received notification from their “distributor, brokers and manufacturers that they are unable to fill our orders … Factory closures during the pandemic last year coupled with staff shortages, (mean) it will take some time for the industry to return to normal production,” Gebreselassie said.
Though it’s unclear if other school districts in the D.C. region are also experiencing issues, Prince George’s County isn’t alone in struggling to feed students in their schools amid supply issues. Nationwide, schools are facing challenges feeding students, CNN reported.
One school in Missouri was forced to send staff to local grocery stores to stock up on “frozen pizza, tater toes, and hot dogs,” after three of their distributors stopped delivering food, the New York Times reported.
The USDA has responded to reports of increased food costs for schools by sending schools $1.5 billion and by waving financial penalties that can’t meet federal nutrition standards for meals, CNN reported.
How this money will impact Prince George’s County is still to be determined. A 2021 survey by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association found providing a free meal service increases student access to meals and decreases unpaid meal debt for families. It also found 97% of those surveyed are concerned about continued supply chain disruptions.
“Some of those smaller districts that don’t have more access to multiple vendors or distributors are sometimes fearing the worst,” the association’s spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said. “Some of these bigger districts have warehouses where they can stack up the items that are available when they’re shorted on other products.”