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Toni Elder, cafeteria manager left, and Nigina Fowler, cafeteria technician right, assist students waiting in line to receive their breakfast at Sugar Mill Primary School, the newest primary school in Ascension Parish, on the first day of school in August. School cafeterias in Louisiana and the country are experiencing labor shortages, and food and supply interruptions but continue their mission of feeding kids. 

On a daily basis, school cafeterias in the Greater Baton Rouge area are short of workers, food items and supplies — a predicament seen across the state and country.

The shifting supplies of food and other items are a result of the snarled manufacturing, shipping and delivery services caused by the pandemic, child nutrition directors said.

Hurricane Ida also damaged some vendor food-processing plants in southeast Louisiana.

But there's no clear explanation for the shortage of cafeteria employees, school district officials said.

Vacancies are going unfilled, but aside from those employees who are on leave, others aren't coming to work on any given day, perhaps driven to stay home by a fear of COVID-19.

"In any given day, we might have about 40 to 50 cafeteria employees absent at a school," said Nadine Mann, financial director for the East Baton Rouge Schools child nutrition program.

With 83 schools and approximately 41,000 students, the school system went with a staffing service in August for help hiring cafeteria workers.

"They are really not having anymore success than we were before," Mann said.

"We're working about 45 substitutes a day" from a standby pool that used to have 100 people on call, she said.

"We're not sure why there's such a shortage," Mann said.

In Ascension Parish, with 32 public schools and about 23,000 students, "We are about 30 or 40 short, across the district, in cafeteria technicians every day," said Leuna Johnson, supervisor of child nutrition.

At the four high school cafeterias, each with six serving lines, some of the lines occasionally have to be closed down when the cafeterias are short-staffed, Johnson said.

"It's been very hard on the employees who are on the job," she said.

In Livingston Parish, with 43 public schools and approximately 26,000 students, school cafeterias have seen the "same struggles as everybody else," school system spokeswoman Delia Taylor said.

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"There's a shortage of applicants, we're not getting job applicants in the first place," she said. "The workload has to be absorbed by others."

It's a daily challenge, officials added.

"How are we coping? We borrow employees from one school to another," said Mann, with East Baton Rouge schools. "We're orchestrating from day-to-day."

Menus are shifting too, with regular substitutions when expected food deliveries don't happen.

"We hope parents will be patient in these difficult times," said Emily Hartman, assistant financial director with the East Baton Rouge schools child nutrition program. "We are working to find good-quality food and enough of it — we are finding it, but it takes time and effort."

School districts are also working to have enough supplies of items like "sporks," straws and napkins that go with the meals, as students in many districts, post-pandemic, are now eating meals in their classrooms and need "to-go" items.

Johnson in Ascension Parish remembers a shortage once of the right kind of plastic lids for the cups — the lids were missing the "X" cutout for the straws. The district was able to get the lids it needed, she said.

"Not having enough is not an option," she said.

Other shortages and delays have included repair parts of school kitchen equipment. At one East Baton Rouge school cafeteria, the cooks baked rice and vegetables in the ovens, until parts arrived for the repair of the commercial steamer that usually did the job, Mann said. It took two months for the parts to come in.

The students don't know of the daily struggles in the school kitchens that serve their breakfasts and lunch and that's the way it should be, school officials said.

"Children still line up in their lines and wait to be fed," said Johnson. "Whatever happens, we get it done."

"No other department can say they see every child every day. It might be just for a second," she said. "But we want to give them the best experience."

"That child is never going to know what has gone on to get this meal served to them," Johnson said.


Email Ellyn Couvillion at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com.