Park Rapids students say pandemic has eaten their lunch
The school food service program has been affected this year by COVID-19 guidelines and availability issues for certain menu items.
Students at Park Rapids Area Schools have reported a decrease in the quality, quantity and variety of food served by the school lunch program this year.
Emily, a junior, said, “I definitely think it’s a little different. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily bad. But it’s definitely different. It’s more of the same, but not bad. I like it, but I don’t get it every single day.”
She added, “I feel like we’re kind of limited to more packaged things, or more things that are easier to give to students because of COVID.”
“I’d say not having à la carte, normally, like we had pizza here in past years and the years prior, I feel like that’s definitely changed as far as why people not wanting school lunch,” said Chaise, a senior.
“It was better previously, throughout the years,” said Sierra, a senior. “Ever since corona(virus), basically, it hasn’t really been good.”
“I think it’s not enough food for most people,” said Nick, a junior. “So, like, most kids have to go out to lunch to eat, to actually get full. Last year it was good enough. We didn’t have to go out every day, and there was à la carte, so you could buy lunch there. But there’s not enough food for the free lunch.”
Several students leaving the school for lunch last week said they have no opinion about the food served in the cafeteria because they always go home for lunch or eat out.
The Enterprise asked J.T. Clark, director of food service with the Park Rapids schools, whether supply issues have been affecting his program since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I don’t think I’d say supply,” Clark said. “Availability, I would say more so. There’s certain times when I can’t get certain things. But usually, within a couple weeks, they become available again.”
Examples include fresh produce, particularly carrots, celery and lettuce, and manufactured items, like pizzas.
“Our recommendation from MDE (the Minnesota Department of Education) and the Minnesota Department of Health was to go to as much pre-packaged foods as possible,” said Clark. “At the beginning of the year, they were hard to come by, because now you have 800 schools in Minnesota … all switching to the same items. But that kind of worked itself out of the system early, and we’ve adapted our menu, too.”
During the school year, he said, the school lunch program has gradually brought back items that weren’t pre-packaged, items made from scratch.
This wasn’t just statewide, Clark added. His brother teaches in California, where students are being served the same things to eat. “So, the volume changed,” he said. “And then you have suppliers who, now, they’re not supplying restaurants. So, … their inventory ends up changed. It has a big snowball effect.”
High school principal Jeff Johnson also acknowledged that things have “definitely changed” for the food service program since the start of the school year, as restrictions were loosened, such as the requirement for all menu items to be individually packaged.
Responding to students’ comments that they were seeing the same few things served over and over compared to more variety before the pandemic, Clark said, “We run a four-week menu cycle, but it does change. It’s different items for four weeks in a row. Granted, some of them might be, you know, a taco one day and a burrito another day. But they are technically different.”
He acknowledged that things were harder at the beginning of the school year, because all the schools were ordering the same items. “But once we got it going, everybody kind of found their own niche,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, “It’s not a big deal. It’s just switching carrots one day to celery, you know what I mean? It’s just being able to be adaptable.”
Clark doesn’t expect an end soon to the special procedures for school lunch programs or the availability issues on certain foods. “Not for the remainder of this year,” he said. “I have gotten no feedback about next year, even the summer, yet.”