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From left, the USDA's Stacy Dean, Tyler Elementary School cafeteria manager Unica Green and Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, work with Prince William County schools Director of Nutrition Services Adam Russo to make enchiladas at Tyler Elementary School.

You don’t have to know much about the ingredients to enjoy a good enchilada. Meat wrapped in a tortilla, topped with cheese and cooked in a saucy base, it’s all fairly straightforward.

But what students at Tyler Elementary in Gainesville may not have known about the lunch menu Friday afternoon is how close by many of its components were produced. The sous-vide chicken filling came from Cuisine Solutions in Loudoun, the tortillas from Abuelita Mexican Food Products in Manassas Park. No, the melty cheese wasn’t local, but the apples on the side were grown in Charlottesville and the bread was baked in house.

That’s what brought two officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, to Tyler Friday morning: to heap praise on Prince William County Schools food service and make the county’s local-sourcing practices a model for schools across the nation.

To do so, the department wants to invest more time and effort into helping local food producers enter the supply chain for area schools.

“Schools like Tyler are truly the backbone of our communities and a model for all of us. We want to learn more about what you do here today so we can bring it to other schools around the country,” USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Stacy Dean said Friday morning.

Wexton also talked up the need for Congress to fully fund the USDA’s school meals program, with enough money to make school meals free for all students regardless of family income for the third straight year and to keep the meal reimbursement rate high enough to make schools an attractive buyer for growers. More federal money could also keep school cafeterias fully staffed.

Supply chain problems and staffing shortages have taken hold across the country, driving the USDA to raise its reimbursement rate that’s eventually paid to schools for every meal twice in 2021, most recently by 25 cents per lunch. Adam Russo, Prince William County schools’ director of nutrition services, said the supply chain crunch only accelerated the search for local producers and to get creative in schools in order to make the most of what’s available.

“We knew that this year was going to be harder, so we worked together … to make sure that there was a little bit more money, a little bit more flexibility so that folks could continue to do their incredible work,” Dean said. “Unfortunately, all of that flexibility that we’ve had and the additional resources is set to go away. It’s really critical that Congress take action to make sure that we continue to have it.”

Dean, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing Mae Wu and Wexton even got their hands dirty Friday, helping the staff at Tyler make the roughly 100 enchilada servings they’d need for a lunch service. They were guided by Unica Green, Tyler’s cafeteria manager, in wrapping up the tortillas.

“When they come out we’re going to put a hunk of cheese on top, it’s really food. This is one of my favorites,” Green said Friday from behind the lunch line.

But skilled professionals have been harder to come by since the pandemic sparked a massive realignment for workers and employers. Just like the nationwide teacher shortage that many school systems are feeling acutely, Russo says his department is down between 10 and 20% in staffing this year.

That’s meant needing to shift employees around to address urgent needs at the individual school level, and using division office employees in cafeterias. So far, Russo says, the division has held it together and gotten creative. But Congress’s next budget will need to continue to fund school meals to keep schools competitive for jobseekers.

“The hospitality industry has been hit the hardest as far as staffing woes, and we are no different; we’re not insulated from that,” he told InsideNoVa last month.

And as deliveries have been inconsistent and sometimes lacking, those school cafeteria workers have had to lean on their cooking skills to stretch what they’ve gotten and keep meals tasty and healthy.

That’s where locally-sourced food plays a role as well. For many producers, school cafeterias haven’t been a viable purchaser until recently. Wu said that building more resiliency into the food supply chain was going to be a priority for the USDA, as well as allowing schools more flexibility in what they can serve.

And according to Wexton, Virginia’s producers have faced fewer supply chain issues than those in other parts of the country.

“That’s why it’s so important that we have a lot of local food sourcing. That really helps with supply chain issues and that’s one of the things that we’ve seen here in Prince William County,” Wexton said. “Because they get so much locally, they haven’t experienced the same level of supply chain disruption that a lot of our other schools have.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

Reporter

Jared Foretek covers Prince William County Public Schools, the city of Manassas and transportation news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

(1) comment

ROBERT ARRINGTON

where is his mask ?

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