The supply chain that ensures Alaska’s schools serve nutritious food has broken down in some communities that rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Recently, one school district unsuccessfully appealed to the Coast Guard to help deliver foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that had been stuck in Juneau.
Some of Alaska’s school cafeteria food is supplied by the USDA to ensure minimum nutrition standards. The federal government only brings it as far as Seattle.
From there, the state of Alaska transports it to more than a dozen hubs across the state.
“Those 13 locations are based on population centers where we have more students,” said Jo Dawson, the child nutrition program manager for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
Once the federally-supplied food reaches those 13 drop points in Alaska, schools in remote areas of the state transport it the rest of the way to their communities.
In Southeast Alaska, some schools have used the Alaska Marine Highway System to transport the food from Juneau.
The problem for those schools is that regional service has been shut down since late January. Minimal service isn’t expected to return until next month.
“Most of the districts haven’t been affected,” said Dawson. “We’ve had two, which are Chatham (School District) and Hoonah (City Schools), that have been the most affected because they did use the ferry system, not only for the USDA foods, but for their regular commercial foods as well.”
The Chatham School District includes schools in the remote communities of Angoon, Gustavus and Klukwan.
Chatham School District Superintendent Bruce Houck told KHNS that USDA foods bound for Angoon were stuck in a warehouse in Juneau for weeks. In an email, he said the school reached out to the Coast Guard last month, requesting they deliver those goods to Angoon.
Chief Petty Officer Mathew Schofield, a Coast Guard spokesperson based in Juneau, said Angoon’s request was denied.
“If we were to deliver things based on a humanitarian need, it’s typically because there would be no commercial avenues that are available. In this particular case, the Coast Guard has been in direct contact with the school district and staff there and essentially pointed them to different resources that are available commercially,” Schofield said.
Merchants on the ground say it’s not so easy.
Shayne Thompson would know. He runs Angoon Trading Co., the main store in town. Right now, Angoon is receiving goods by seaplane — at 85 cents a pound. Thompson has also partnered with other residents to charter landing craft to make deliveries.
“We don’t have a proper barge landing here in Angoon, so we have opted to enlist landing craft when we have a load that is big enough to bring over, which since October has been about every three weeks,” Thompson said.
But it hasn’t been consistent. That means it’s hard to keep perishables stocked.
“Fresh produce items and stuff that we would normally replenish every week we run out of, and our dairy and that sort of thing we run out of too,” Thompson said.
Chatham School District officials said they had to fly fresh produce to Angoon’s school due to the shortage of food for their lunch program.
The ferry Tazlina is expected to resume runs to Angoon and Hoonah in March. That should bring some relief to both the schools and merchants.
In the meantime, food drives organized in Juneau and Sitka are sending donations to the villages cut off by the shutdown of the Alaska Marine Highway System.