Nearly 30 million children across the United States rely on school meals as an important source of daily nutrition. As supply chain issues continue to plague cafeterias across the country, school districts have been forced to get creative with whatever ingredients are available each day, allowing nutrition requirements to fall by the wayside.
“Take a hamburger, for example," said Richard Michelfelder, a clinical associate professor of finance at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. "Something so simple as a bun, lettuce, and ground beef starts to get very complex when you think about all the inputs. Wheat exports have been heavily disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The majority of U.S. lettuce is grown in Arizona, which is experiencing a historic drought. Price hikes are affecting packaging materials, fertilizers needed to grow cattle feed, and the carbon dioxide used to flash-freeze products.”
Most school districts outsource their dining services—including everything equipment to recipe development, food procurement, and preparation—to larger corporations. Only three vendors—Compass, Sodexo, and Aramark—manage over half the country’s cafeterias. To secure lower food prices, these management companies use their massive purchasing power to broker national contracts with suppliers.
“If it costs $3 for a cafeteria to deliver a meal to a child, it may cost these vendors $2 because of the economies of scale. If you are buying 2,000 tons of hamburger meat nationwide versus 200 pounds at a single school, you will get much better buying power,” Michelfelder said. “Economies of large-scale production create efficiency.”
The corporate consolidation of food systems allows producers to supply more food at lower cost. However, when these systems have fewer production and processing sites, even small changes can have a devastating domino effect.
As director of the Gourmet Dining Nutrition Services program at Rutgers–Camden and Rutgers–Camden’s new state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen, registered dietician Nick Mazza is tasked with designing well-balanced meals that promote cognitive health and performance among students.
“For children and adolescents, the main nutritional focus is carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables,” said Mazza. “As children grow, it is important for them to receive an adequate amount of protein. Protein, omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, B12, and B9 are all nutrients found in assorted forms of protein-rich foods that are vital for brain development.”
While Rutgers–Camden has been fortunate to experience minimal disruptions this year, Mazza recognizes that school districts across the country, especially those serving low-income students, are feeling the pinch. Districts have bypassed supply chain issues by limiting menu options, serving pre-packaged meals, or shopping at regional supply depots to fill gaps. Others have created warehouses to store frozen reserves out of desperation.
With staple ingredients like wheat, eggs, produce, and meat still in short supply, cafeterias must improvise with whatever is available. This often translates to less nutritious (and sometimes less appetizing) meals and more frozen, processed fare.
“Many of these processed alternatives have longer shelf lives due to the preservatives added to them,” Mazza said. “The issue with these foods is that they often have a high amount of saturated fat and sodium to make them more palatable and last longer.”
When students lack access to a variety of foods, they may become lethargic and struggle to sustain attention. Research has shown that students who experience hunger and poor nutrition are more likely to have behavioral issues and less likely to perform well in school. Over time, deprivation of these nutrients can lead to a phenomenon called “hidden hunger,” wherein individuals do not experience proper growth and development due to the absence of nutrients like iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium. Someone who does not receive adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D is at a greater risk for disease and subpar bone development.
Ultimately, the affordability and efficiency of large-scale food production comes at the cost of resilience. The crisis unfolding in school cafeterias has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the global food system. While the complex nature of today’s food-system crisis will require an equally complex, multifaceted solution, Michelfelder maintains that large-scale suppliers are best equipped to provide a steady supply of nutritious foods at a low price. While small firms may have greater flexibility to respond to market disruptions, local produce is not viable for all environments, especially cold climates or urban areas. He believes large agribusinesses and local suppliers can work together to build a more resilient, equitable food system.
“Large firms have the economies of scope and scale to diversify in such a manner that small, local firms cannot,” Michelfelder said.
Creative Design: Karaamat Abdullah