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‘Worst I’ve ever seen’: Seattle schools experience unprecedented food shortages

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Adrian Florez

UPDATE, 4:05 p.m.: Adds additional information provided in a statement from the school district.

Jennifer Francis says it’s her mission to feed kids good, nutritious meals. But in the 18 years she’s worked for Seattle Public Schools, she’s never seen anything like the chaos surrounding school lunches this year.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Francis, who manages the district’s central kitchen. “Not a smooth start to the year at all. By the beginning of every school year, we already have food sitting in place in the freezer ready to go out the first day.”

But not this time around, she says.

The state’s largest school district is facing a shortage of key ingredients that has left schools scrambling to feed students. And it’s caused nutrition services workers to take a vote of no confidence in an official who was just appointed as director of their department.

Tim Robinson, a spokesman for Seattle Public Schools, said the district is working hard to get food service on track after some computer glitches delayed ordering, a problem that he said has now been resolved. Additionally, a department reorganization left some positions unfilled and that's contributed to the issues. The number of meals served so far this month is at the same level as last year, Robinson said.

The district later issued a statement in which it said "there is no shortage of food for breakfast or lunch meals" and that the nutrition services staff has been told to let the central office staff know immediately if there are any issues. 

"Our nutrition services director has the full support of the superintendent and administrative staff," the district said in its statement.

But union members' frustration reached such a breaking point that earlier this week, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609 sent a letter to Superintendent Denise Juneau explaining the reasons why they had taken a vote of no confidence in Nutrition Services Director Aaron Smith, who was hired last December from Tennessee. Smith did not respond to an email from KNKX Public Radio seeking comment.

The union said his reorganization of the division was poorly timed and led to the loss of key staff who know how departmental systems operate. That resulted in orders not being placed on time, members said.

Francis said the lack of preparation led to food shortages.

The issues have left schools sharing items, and forced some workers to buy ingredients — such as hamburger buns — out of their own pockets. Some schools even served cereal instead of hot lunch, said Mike McBee, business manager for the union.

The Seattle school district serves about 53,000 students, and with them more than 14,600 lunches and 5,800 breakfasts every day.

Smith, the new director, previously served as assistant director of nutrition services for the Hamilton County Department of Education in Tennessee. He received his culinary arts training at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago.

Rachel Kayne, kitchen manager at Garfield High School, says that in addition to the shortages, kids are receiving food that’s unappetizing and unhealthy.

On the menu at some elementary schools, Kayne says: sandwiches made with sunflower seed spread and jelly.

“They’re just this puck of nasty sunbutter in the center of some square-cut bread with some high-fructose corn syrup jelly,” Kayne said. “And they’re frozen.”

And at Olympic Hills Elementary School in North Seattle, kitchen manager Lynne Lingafelter is dismayed by the food she's had to serve. Last year, elementary schools offered two hot meals for lunch every day, with one of them vegetarian. This year, there's often only one hot vegetarian option once a week, she said. 

Lingafelter said she's also frustrated by the amount of processed food she's having to serve to kids, including pancakes and waffles in plastic bags. She said it makes her embarrassed.

"I figure if I'm not going to eat it, how can I serve it to these guys?" she said.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.