Kids eating apples and smiling

Back to School: Excitement as Kids Come Back, but Anxiety Behind the Scenes

No matter how old you are, the back to school season feels like the true beginning of the year. And it's no wonder: Starting a new school year is an important turning point in the lives of America's children. Reuniting with old friends, tackling new challenges, and expanding the knowledge foundation for future dreams make this time both exciting and challenging.

As millions of children across the nation start a new year of learning, playing and growing, school nutrition staff continue to work hard to ensure kids have the meals they need to realize their dreams for the school year. But, behind the scenes, cafeterias continue to face challenges that affect their ability to support kids.

Tonya Parker serves as a nutrition bookkeeper in the rural community of Colquitt County in Georgia. She sees how supply chain problems and the shortage of available workers makes it hard for the school district to provide meals to students.

“We are still struggling to get many food items in as they are either backordered or no longer in production,” explained Parker. “We have also struggled to get in disposable products to package our food items. It does require more labor hours and staff… In a world where everyone is advertising with help wanted signs, it is difficult to have enough staff to handle the added workload. In order to attract more employees and help keep up with inflation, we have had to increase salaries. Food and supply costs have gone up, in some cases, more than double. ”

She added that the financial strain has made it challenging to create a program that supports students' needs and fosters a learning environment. But the show must go on.

“Seeing their smiling faces each day and knowing that our program helps to bring that smile to their face each day makes all of the challenges we face in our current world worth it,” added Parker.

Districts in urban communities are facing similar challenges to Colquitt County. Just outside of Atlanta, Denielle Saitta works in marketing for Fulton County Schools’ nutrition. She welcomes the new year with excitement and new menu items that include vegetarian and halal options, but there’s uncertainty about what can be achieved.

“While we’ve planned awesome breakfast and lunch menus,” said Saitta, “If we can’t get the products in, then we won’t be able to serve the planned menu. Our main challenge will be managing supply chain issues.”

For Frances Montoya-Gatewood, food service director at Vaughn Learning Center in California, the need for specific food items has increased with many kids having specific dietary needs, but they cannot count on getting all the items they plan for. At the same time, the excitement of new menu items and ideas sometimes cannot be fulfilled.

“We get excited, they [the kids] look forward to it, and then we are let down, and they are disappointed...

"This is hard for us. There is nothing like looking forward to potato wedges on the menu and not being there on a Friday!” Montoya-Gatewood said.

Nutrition staff have been there for kids under the most challenging situations. They have adapted, put themselves at risk and work long days to ensure kids have their meals no matter what. Montoya-Gatewood explained that “Covid was very much still present” in her community. The disruptions and some of the fear are still present.

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Even with all these challenges, school nutrition staff are so happy to have kids back at school where they can ensure they are getting the three meals a day they need. All across the country the message is consistent and clear. 

“You are not alone; we are here for you. We look forward to seeing our students and helping to fuel their educational experience with nutritious and delicious meals each day!” shared Parker.

Ways You Can Help

These heroes need your support during this back to school season. 

No Kid Hungry supports the many dedicated program and food service staff, school nutrition professionals and other essential individuals who are working on the frontlines to effectively deliver school meals to children. This includes providing grants for essential equipment and staffing, promoting policies that make their work easier and supplying essential support to navigate ongoing challenges.

When you donate to No Kid Hungry, you are helping the magic of school meals happen.