BILLINGS — Montana public schools are feeling the impact of shortages in their cafeterias.
For Neli Boulet, the kitchen lead manager of McKinley Elementary School in Billings, there’s not much she can do. “It’s totally out of our hands, and it’s in the food distributors' hands, and it just kind of is what it is."
Many food items are getting harder to find. “We’re doing less entrée options because of the supply shortage,” Boulet said.
Montana public schools receive their food from distributors like Sysco, but these distributors are struggling to get products. Billings Public Schools Child Nutrition Director Sid Taylor says local products are easy to come by, but non-local products are a whole different story.
“Some of the other chicken products, we’ve kind of had issues getting certain things just from the plants or from where they’re producing them and that’s been a little bit of an issue," he said.
Kitchen staff has been using substitutions to modify meals. The spicy chicken sandwich is a popular item among high schoolers, but since the schools aren’t receiving them, modifying is the only option.
“But we have been able to get a regular chicken patty and what we’ve done is taken that and brushed some Frank’s Red Hot Sauce or spiced it up that way,” said Taylor.
However, the shortage extends beyond food.
“Another area we’ve really struggled with is finding paper products. A lot of our paper, disposable products, a lot of that I think was used up during the pandemic,” said Taylor.
Packets of condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, and salad dressings are also in short supply — and so is lunchroom staff.
“A lot of our managers and office staff are working in schools. My human resources manager has been covering at an elementary school for a couple months now,” said Taylor.
Kitchen workers are hopeful the shortages won’t last, but Boulet is taking it one day at a time," you just kind of got to roll with it."