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As K-12 students return to classrooms after the holiday break, school lunch rooms across the nation, including in Montana, continue to contend with food shortages and escalating prices resulting from global supply chain disruptions. But earlier this week the state Office of Public Instruction announced that new federal assistance to help alleviate the problem is on the way.

The funding is part of a $1.5 billion nationwide relief effort by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Food Program and administers nutrition guidelines for public school meals. Montana is slated to receive $5.1 million of that funding, with $3.6 million specifically flagged for supply chain assistance and $728,000 dedicated to establishing or strengthening cooperative agreements with local providers. As outlined by the USDA, the remaining $791,000 will be made available for additional purchase orders for specific products through the federal foods program.

“The chain supply crisis is a concern for all, especially our Montana schools,” Republican Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said in a statement announcing the funds. “However, here’s an opportunity for local schools to use this funding to ensure our students are consistently receiving the nutrition needed to prioritize learning. I am particularly pleased with the focus through local farm-to-school foods to showcase our great Montana producers.”

In response to questions from Montana Free Press, OPI spokesperson Dennison Rivera said the agency expects to disburse the USDA funding in March through the state’s school nutrition payment system. Rivera added that districts will receive a minimum of $5,000, with some districts qualifying for higher payments based on enrollment.

“I’m excited that they’re giving some money to the schools. That’s definitely going to help with the price increases. But, I mean, there’s nothing you can do if the product’s not there.”

Haven Murphy, food service director at Greenfield Elementary

According to the USDA, schools can use the funds specified for supply chain assistance to purchase a broad array of unprocessed or minimally processed foods including milk, ground meat and fresh fruit. The department will also allow state education agencies to use 10% of their supply chain assistance funds to make bulk purchases of local food items for distribution to individual schools. 

“Now, more than ever, America’s children need access to healthy and nutritious foods and our school nutrition professionals play a huge role in making that happen,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement last month. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts have met extraordinary challenges to ensure that every child has the food needed to learn, grow and thrive. The food and funds USDA is distributing will help ensure schools have the resources they need to continue to serve our nation’s schoolchildren quality food they can depend on, all while building a stronger, fairer, and more competitive food system.”

Rivera said OPI plans to use 10% of the state’s supply chain assistance funding for bulk purchases and is currently “getting input from districts and looking at options with local producers and processors.”

Additional funding may help resolve one of the primary challenges that Tammy Wham, kitchen manager at Ennis Schools and president of the Montana School Nutrition Association, is currently facing in providing meals for the roughly 340 students in her district. Last fall, Wham was struggling to find breakfast and lunch menu staples such as whole grain muffins and canned corn. It’s still hard to get certain items, she told MTFP, but now increasing prices are becoming a growing concern as well, one that threatens to hurt school budgets across the state.

“I spent $3,000 on one order this week,” Wham said Thursday. “And that’s a lot for us.”

Haven Murphy, food service director at Greenfield Elementary outside Fairfield, recently received a notification from the USDA that prices for disposable items such as napkins and paper plates will increase in February. She said the federal assistance, which she learned about Thursday on a webinar hosted by OPI, should soften the impact of those increases and help lunchroom officials source some of their needs more locally. But Murphy added that extra funding won’t solve all her problems, noting she’s been keeping a running list of food items that are still unavailable from suppliers. Her latest additions to that list include pineapple, dill pickles and grapes. 

“I’m excited that they’re giving some money to the schools. That’s definitely going to help with the price increases,” Murphy said. “But, I mean, there’s nothing you can do if the product’s not there.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.