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'Whatever it takes': Hickman Mills commits to feeding students amid metro-wide food supply shortage

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Posted at 4:03 PM, Sep 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-17 10:58:06-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo — Almost half of the school districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area are facing food supply shortages. School officials are acting quickly to find alternative distributors that can help fill that void.

“I’ve been in the school nutrition industry for 25 years, and I've never seen anything like this,” Grennan Sims, director of nutrition services at Hickman Mills School District, said.

Sims said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought long-lasting effects no one could have imagined. Large food distributors are breaking contracts with schools due to labor shortages. School districts are the first to be let go as distributors make more money servicing retail.

“I mean, they are trying. They are all facing the staff shortages that we all are — across the country,” Sims said. “Almost half of us recently got cut, but several of them had gotten cut from US Foods and Sysco as well, so now they have no one.”

A representative from US Foods told KSHB 41 News the company is "fulfilling all contractual obligations" with its Kansas City school clients.

Hickman Mills, Park Hill, Liberty, North Kansas City, Blue Valley and Olathe School Districts are all notifying parents of changes to their regular menu. Some districts are accepting donations or asking parents to send items with their kids to school from home.

“We want to make sure that no child goes hungry here in Hickman Mills as well as across all of Kansas City area,” Sims said.

Only about 20 percent of Hickman Mills School District’s food deliveries were successful in the last three weeks causing their prime food vendor, Kohl Wholesale, to discontinue its contract with the district. Their contract will be void as of November 9th.

With the current stock of food, without any new shipments, the district can hold off for a month.

“We have a vulnerable population,” Sims said. “The meals that our kids eat each day, often it is the only one that they get here at school.”

About 95% of their students rely on their food program. It has fed breakfast, lunch and dinner to all students since 2014. Sims is pulling in the community and making cold calls to find a solution.

“I had the call on Monday morning and by Tuesday at 2 o’clock, they were like, ‘We’re putting stuff on trucks to get it to you.’ Martin Brothers specializes in K-12,” Sims said. “We’ve also been calling a lot of manufacturers directly — and asking can you do a direct shipment.”

But, with many of those manufacturers requiring minimum shipments, storage is an issue.

The staffing shortage in the district adds to the problem as well. Across the metro, there is about a 25% employee vacancy in food services in school districts.

“We’ll make it happen. Whatever it takes,” Sims said. “There’s those moments where you are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how I can do this.’ And then you go out and you see that kid and they are eating and they are happy, because you have been able to provide them a healthy meal. And you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s why I am doing it.”