When Sally Spero, child nutrition director for Lakeside Union School District, Lakeside, Calif., hosted a planning meeting in January, it wasn’t to discuss menu innovations, new approaches to line efficiency or employee relations.
Rather, the gathering of San Diego County school foodservice directors was convened to broach the short- and long-term implications of the 35-day federal government shutdown.
Concerns ranged from USDA funding for child nutrition lunch programs, food safety breaches due to curtailing of food plant inspections and the internal task of identifying district families whose parents are federal employees. Had the shutdown gone on longer, those families would have been eligible to receive meal benefits from the district.
For directors such as Spero, the month-plus shutdown served as a wake-up call to formulate an operational strategy for handling unexpected circumstances, and then integrate that strategy into the foodservice program’s standards and practices.
The government closure was a cautionary tale about how operators should ponder establishing protocols for dealing with unexpected circumstances that could impact operations.
“After it was resolved (on Jan. 25, with the possibility of a new closure in mid-February), I planned to sit down with my boss to discuss dealing with things like this in the future,” Spero says. “Suppose the shutdown went on and on—what would be our recourse, our solution? We’re in the process of integrating a plan into our standards and practices to address unexpected events.”
While Spero is confident that food safety hadn’t been compromised, she says the most pressing affect of the shutdown centered around USDA’s commodity sourcing.
“For those 30-plus days, the agency didn’t place its typical orders for commodities like beef, chicken, cheese, canned foods, vegetables and more,” she says. “That impacted our budget: We receive $10,000 per month from the government to cover costs for these foods, so we were forced to buy branded options at higher costs, such as poultry to serve chicken nuggets from chicken processors.”
Nationwide, noncommercial operations faced varying degrees of disruption.
Charles County Public Schools in La Plata, Md., assisted any family hit hard by the shutdown by allocating an additional $30 for per-student credits, which amounted to two weeks of meals. The increase continued for 30 days after the shutdown ended, according to a school statement.
Vance County Schools in Henderson, N.C., experienced upheaval and had to revise its meal plan. The district started a meal rationing initiative by serving one main dish, bread, two vegetables, one fruit, and milk, and eliminated some other staples “to conserve food and funding,” according to a district statement.
Specter of an unsafe supply
Aside from financial impact, food safety was also top of mind. Although directors such as Spero are confident that food safety wasn’t breached, others aren’t so sure.
One noncommercial director, responding to a formal poll from foodservice research firm and FSD sister company Technomic, stated that “food safety is our main concern [during the closure]. The government seems to be running on the bare minimum of food inspectors as is. The shutdown doesn’t help.”
Some directors see the need to implement additional vigilance on top of already strict practices, adding further responsibility to daily workflow.
Cynthia Green, dietitian and culinary foodservice director for Gonzales Healthcare Systems in Gonzales, Texas, asked, “with a lack of USDA inspections, do we have to worry more about tainted products getting into consumers’ mouths?”
Leaving nothing to chance, Green’s staff ramped up its internal food safety efforts to be prepared for any issues.
“I’m not distrustful of [food] companies, but if they don’t have oversight during times like this, then things can slip through the cracks,” says Green, who’s employed by HHS LLC (Hospital Housekeeping Systems), the third-party contactor for Gonzales, which serves up to 150 patient and retail meals per day.
“Even if food has the USDA stamp on it, our due diligence is top of mind to ensure sanitation, and that means a higher degree of washing, cleaning and ensuring proper temperature,” Green says.
Stepping up during a shutdown
Hospital and university foodservice directors had to monitor how the government shutdown would impact their operations to any degree.
If the shutdown didn’t create complications this time, it certainly provided urgency to formulate a plan to handle future unexpected circumstances, and then integrate any new strategy into standards and practices.
Those hospitals involved in distributing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food to patients and their families didn’t appear to endure interrupted funding due to the ordeal. According to some reports, however, there would have been zero remaining funding for SNAP should the shutdown have continued through March.
“As a foodservice operation in a hospital setting, I’m not dependent on federally funded programs to purchase food,” says Ruth Argenta, director of food services at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Additionally, the hospital foodservice operation is monitored by the city of Chicago, state of Illinois and the Joint Commission, which follows the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) guidelines.”
On the flip side, some hospitals and universities introduced initiatives to assist furloughed workers throughout January that could affect foodservice operations simply by increasing traffic.
American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., in close proximity to many furloughed workers, offered a series of free all-day events for federal workers on its campus, such as workshops and training sessions.
Mark Story, director of strategic communications for AU, says that while no AU-sanctioned facility joined the initiative by offering free meals, the overarching idea illustrates how such a plan can potentially touch a university’s dining program and its operational blueprint.
In the hospital sector, Hackensack Meridian Health in Hackensack, N.J., waived copays and deductibles for emergency visits at its 17 hospitals and network of urgent care centers for furloughed federal employees and their insured family members, according to Irma Newdorf, director of nutrition and food management, hospitality division, for Hackensack. The shutdown affected 5,000 New Jersey residents.
Newdorf, however, says that about one week into the copay waiver initiative, her foodservice operation had been operating business as usual, with no rise in retail meal sales.