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Supply chain issues persist in central Illinois

ISU Executive Chef Matt Horton oversees a dining center, special event, and catering operation that serves up to 11,000 meals per day.
Charlie Schlenker
Illinois State University executive chef Matt Horton oversees a dining center, special event, and catering operation that serves up to 11,000 meals per day.

Drought, war, and disease continue to affect supply chains worldwide, and it's not just workforce shortages that delay shipping.

Matt Horton, Illinois State University's executive chef for event management, dining, and hospitality, said he wishes things were better than they were a year ago.

They certainly are different, he noted. The only constant is unpredictability in the availability of food items.

For instance, Ukraine usually produces about 60% of the world's sunflower oil, and it abruptly stopped when Russia invaded.

"You find it in blends of oils quite often. We have a canola oil we use for our fryer that has a substantial amount of that," said Horton. "If that sunflower oil is not available, then it's going to be filled by something else. Usually, it's going to lead to a higher cost. And so it's a ripple effect. That's, I think, the common theme with the supply chain issues. You have one smaller factor, and it just is magnified as the course of the product travels.”

Horton, whose unit provides up to 11,000 meals a day, said he found prices of oil blends rose by more than a third.

There also have been aluminum production problems. Horton said bauxite, used to make the metal, has a long shipping chain.

"Think about all the products we use like yogurt cups, butter PC's (personal containers), containers that have that little foil top. All of a sudden I'm seeing a lot of out-of-stocks on some of these items that normally we didn't have a problem with. Yoplait and Dannon and places like that found themselves short on some of those," said Horton.

And aluminum requires large amounts of electricity to produce, while energy costs have risen sharply worldwide.

“So if electricity, in certain parts of the world is shifting, or is reduced, there are questions about do we give electricity to the people or do we keep making aluminum?” said Horton.

And bird flu has made turkey impossible to get meaningful quantities.

"We haven't had turkey on our menu this fall. We're just not able to get it, at least on a regular basis. And I don't want to play the game of getting two cases today and maybe next week? It's hard to plan if you are relying on that," said Horton.

Horton said farmers have had to put down 40 million turkeys because of the flu. As a guide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the nation consumes 46 million turkeys every Thanksgiving. Horton said it raises the question what to do for the upoming holiday.

“Well, there’s always ham, right?” said Horton.

Horton said it takes longer to grow a turkey than a chicken, making it difficult to estimate when the industry will be able to build up a supply again after Thanksgiving.

These issues fuel the argument for an increase in a plant-based diet, he said, adding vegetables, fruits, and non-animal proteins have not had as significant a price jump as animal-based proteins.

A year ago, trucking industry and potato processing facility labor shortages affected the potato crop. This year, Horton said western drought is a culprit. Annual harvesting of potatoes is going on now. And there are supply shortages of different types of potatoes used to make different products, such as hash browns or some cuts of fries.

Keep in mind this is already after last year when manufacturers had said instead of 300 types of French fries, "we're ‘going to go down to 200. Those hands have already been played. We're seeing inventory come back but because of the growing cycle of the potato, it'll rear its head next summer as inventories of these potatoes are depleted,” said Horton.

Planning and communication can help smooth the supply issues, he said, along with creativity in buying raw ingredients for more cooking from scratch. He also said he has changed from a just in-time inventory system to a just-in-case mindset, stocking up on some items so there is a fallback if one product runs short.

“I spent a lot of the summer looking at some of those things. Now, that doesn't work for everybody. A lot of operations don't have luxurious space or the capital to manage that,” said Horton.

And it doesn’t work at all for highly perishable products — see yogurt above.

Horton said one of the just-in-case items he chose is various kinds of frozen chicken— breaded chicken, chicken tenders, popcorn chicken, and things he said that will not go out of style.

“Those are also items that have lower labor, lower prep. And so those can be strategic to help us when we're trying to fill in some of the gaps there as well,” said Horton.

He also has tried to shorten supply lines where possible, For instance, ISU now gets some of its rice from southern Illinois. Yet, that is no guarantee.

“Even if the product is in the same state, it doesn't mean that (the) truck is at the right dock ... when it needs to be. Logistics certainly plays a heavy part into that, that ripple effect,” said Horton.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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