GRAND FORKS — As businesses across the country struggle with supply chain issues and worker shortages, North Dakota schools have quietly faced a supply chain disruption of their own.

On Oct. 2, half of the state’s school districts lost their food distributor when Cash-Wa Distributing ended its contract with the North Dakota Educators Services Co-op.

The North Dakota Educators Services Co-op (NDESC) helps school districts meet their needs by providing joint purchasing of programs, goods and services. NDESC makes contracts with vendors, and school districts can partake in those services for a better price than if they were to strike up an agreement independently. One of these contracts was with Cash-Wa.

Of North Dakota’s 204 school districts, 102 were affected. Around Labor Day, Cash-Wa told NDESC it would be ending the contract due to worker shortages in the company’s warehouses.

Melissa Mattson, manager of administrative services at NDESC, said the co-op tried to negotiate with Cash-Wa to see if it could continue to provide services to schools by reducing the number of delivery days in a week or change drop off points for food, but could not reach an agreement. NDESC put out a request for proposals in an effort to strike a contract with another company, but was unsuccessful, leaving the task of filling the gap that Cash-Wa would leave to individual districts. From there, it was all hands on deck, said Mattson.

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“It was really a combination. I know DPI (Department of Public Instruction) staff did work toward it, our staff did work toward it, individual schools were doing calls, superintendents were making calls, business managers, food service directors,” said Mattson.

Mattson said calls were made to food distribution companies that traditionally serve schools and smaller distributors that do not usually serve schools, as well as the North Dakota Grocers Association to try to find grocery stores that could help.

Each of the 102 affected districts has found a way to feed students, Mattson said, but the solutions found may not be each district’s first choice. While some districts worked out agreements with food distribution services that deliver products to schools, others are now working with local grocery stores and have to pick up food.

“We sure appreciate the fact that grocery stores have stepped in, but it’s hard when you have to run and pick something up when you’re used to having something come to you,” Mattson said. “That’s what I mean by not ideal, but the most important part is there is food for the school food service program.”

Supply chain disruptions for K-12 food were felt even before Cash-Wa’s contract with NDESC ended. Morgan Forness, superintendent of Central Cass Public Schools, in Casselton, said during the first months of school, there were times that shipments were missing items or did not come on time.

“A lot of us depend on the co-op, mass purchasing and things like that. It’s a benefit on many fronts, financially as well as getting food delivered on time. But, they’re victims of the supply chain crisis that’s going on worldwide as well,” he said. “So nobody’s pointing fingers or placing blame in this whole thing, just looking for creative solutions.”

But even with supply chain issues, students have to eat.

“We feed over 1,000 students here in our school district, and you don’t have the flexibility to put that on hold or wait for a period of time,” Forness said. “We did have to send some of our food service people to the Fargo area to buy some things in bulk when certain things didn’t come in time.”

Forness says his district is fortunate to be close to Fargo, which made it easier to buy missing products in bulk and find a replacement food distributor. The district is now working with Sysco, a wholesale restaurant food distributor.

Jeff Manley, superintendent at Cavalier Public Schools, said the DPI had warned schools about supply chain issues in K-12 food distribution, so he was not blindsided by the announcement that his district would need to find a new source for food. After he found out Cash-Wa’s contract with NDESC would be ending, NDESC and DPI collaborated with the district to find other options.

“We were provided with a couple of other options about who to look at and what not, and also encouragement to maybe even try to collaborate with any food recipients within our communities, you know, restaurants, grocery stores and things like that too, because maybe we can work together in that respect,” said Manley.

The district is now working with Sysco. Manley said Joann Carik, the food service director at Cavalier Public Schools, is the reason the district has not had to resort to feeding students peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.

“It’s been a very busy fall for her in trying to deal with all of that so we could stay on our menus for the most part,” Manley said. “There was a lot of pricing back and forth between who could get things here and make shipments and so on. She’s done an outstanding job.”

Linda Schloer, director of child nutrition and food distribution at the DPI, says over the last few months school staff have put in a collaborative effort to find a way to feed students.

“Normally it’s just the cook at the school that is responsible for all this and this is way beyond a cook’s ability. You’re seeing so much more cooperation and collaboration within the school district where it’s administration, faculty, food service and other support staff working together to try to come up with a solution,” Schloer said.

While Cash-Wa did not renegotiate the contract with NDESC, it still provides services to some of the schools it delivered to through its contract with the co-op. Finley-Sharon Public School Superintendent Jeff Larson said the company delivers to a restaurant in town and was ultimately able to keep the school on the delivery route.

Larson said the district did not know that continuing to work with Cash-Wa was a possibility. Initially, the district was searching for other options.

“Had Cash-Wa not come together with us, we would have been partnering with our local grocery store and we would have had to go over and pick up the food and bring it back,” he. “We talked to all the owners and managers there and they were willing to help. Thankfully they didn’t have to.”

Jane Eastes, an NDESC administrator, says NDESC will be talking to member schools to figure out the best way to move forward with food service contracts in the future, but until supply chain issues stabilize, individual districts will continue to face the food supply issues on a case by case basis.