Many puzzled by higher cost of school lunches on Guam
Getting orders to Guam can mean watching beautiful sunsets, learning to scuba dive and shelling out significantly more lunch money at military-run school cafeterias, according to interviews with U.S. military and other government officials.
School lunches cost at least $1 more per meal at the military-run schools on Guam compared with elementary and secondary schools run by the U.S. military in South Korea, mainland Japan and Okinawa.
When it comes to national averages, the military kids on Guam pay at least 50 percent more.
In the starkest difference, elementary students at Guam pay $3.25 compared with $1.86, the average elementary school lunch price in America — a 70 percent difference.
That can mean military families pay $250 more for a first-grader’s lunch on Guam during a school year than they would have back home.
The price discrepancy isn’t new, according to Sue Burdick, the assistant superintendent for the military-run schools on Guam.
For years, U.S. Department of Agriculture eligibility rates for reduced and free lunches on Guam have been less generous than in other remote locations, like Alaska and Hawaii, Burdick and others said.
Those free and reduced lunches come with subsidies that can help keep the overall meal prices down for everyone, according to school officials. When fewer families qualify for cheaper lunches, it means everyone in the lunch line pays more.
“We wonder what the USDA is thinking,” Burdick said about the reimbursement rates during a recent phone interview. “That part is puzzling to us.”
It can also be puzzling to military families whose children qualify for free or reduced lunches in Anchorage, Honolulu or Seoul, but not on Guam, officials said.
Local USDA officials on Guam know about the disparity, which also affects the island’s school system, and they are trying to make a change, according to Ike Santos, the federal programs administrator for the Guam USDA office.
To do that, Santos and others must prove what many on Guam say they already know: Shipping food thousands of miles to Guam and keeping food fresh as it crosses the Pacific costs more than land-based transportation in the continental states. It’s an argument that Alaska and Hawaii already made and won, he said.
“We need to be able to convince the USDA and Congress that it is more expensive,” Santos said by phone last month.
But there are other factors at play, Burdick and others said.
Some school districts, including the public schools on Guam and the military-run schools overseas, use some of their own money to prop up the food service budget. For example, each year Department of Defense Dependents Schools puts $3.6 million into its lunch service worldwide. The money comes from a special congressional measure that allows schools to keep lunches in South Korea, Japan and Germany cheaper for families, according to Dan Peterson, the Pacific food program specialist for AAFES. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, along with the Navy Exchange, provides school lunches at most overseas military bases.
But Guam’s military-run schools — part of the Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary School system — are prohibited from using taxpayer money to offset lunch prices, Burdick said.
What’s more, the DODDS schools use the Alaska rates — the most generous — to determine a family’s eligibility for free or reduced lunches, according to Peterson.
A family of four in Alaska can make $49,025 and qualify for a 40-cent school lunch. A family income of $34,450 means a free lunch, according to USDA statistics. The same rates apply to families at overseas military schools, Peterson said.
On Guam, the rates are the same as those in the lower 48 states. That same family can earn no more than $39,220 to qualify for reduced lunch prices or $27,560 to get a free lunch.
And while fewer military families on Guam qualify for cheaper lunches, the overall cost to make those meals is on the rise, according to Steve Dormer of Global Food Service, the contractor on the island that provides meals at the district’s schools.
Nationwide, school lunch prices have jumped by as much as 12 percent to 13 percent this fall compared with last year, according to Alexis Steines, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based School Nutrition Association.
Guam, too, felt the crunch and raised meal prices by 25 cents this fall at its four schools.
Dormer said about half of the school lunch price goes to pay for food and about half goes to labor. The cost of buying food — some of which must be purchased from certain providers in the States, per USDA regulation — multiplies because of the journey across the Pacific, he said.
“It’s just very frustrating,” Dormer said during a phone interview last month. “We are certainly farther away than Alaska or Hawaii.”
The USDA does provide the military schools on Guam subsidies, as it does for all U.S.-run school districts.
For every meal served, the federal government gives 26 cents to the local school district, according to Jean Daniel, the director of public affairs with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
But the bigger subsidies come when more kids qualify for discounted lunches, no matter what each school charges each student for lunch.
For every qualified free lunch served, the school gets $2.59. Each reduced lunch garners $2.19, Daniel wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. Schools also receive commodities — mostly milk, fruit and vegetables — at special rates through the USDA. Officials estimate these discount goods at a savings of about 20 cents per meal.
In the end, the lunch prices on Guam can come as a shock to some military families.
“A couple were really surprised,” said Tina Knaeble, who explains the lunch pricing to families as the food program analyst for DDESS on Guam. “Some are shocked: ‘I got it at my last duty station. Why can’t I get it here?’ ”
Overall, though, Knaeble and Burdick said, not too many parents complain once they learn about the unique financing behind spaghetti, apples and chocolate milk on Guam. So far this fall, no parents have filed appeals after being denied the lunch discounts, both women said.
The military schools are also working with Guam’s USDA office to change the discount lunch qualifications. But it may be slow to come.
Santos, the local USDA official, said last month his office advertised for an independent study to do the economic analysis, but no companies applied for the job.
Now, his office is working with the University of Guam on the study. When it’s completed, it must go to the National Food Service Management Institute in Oxford, Miss., before going before Congress for approval, he said.