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We’re struggling to feed our students. Loss of ferry service isn’t a minor issue.

  • Author: Bruce Houck
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2019
  • Published December 2, 2019

Sea lions on the Angoon waterfront, May 2014.

In October, the state of Alaska removed winter ferry service to several Alaska villages. Angoon was one of those villages. This action led to the loss of opportunity for a reliable, less expensive travel solution, as well ensuring that Angoon’s grocery store and school can receive high volumes of freight to feed our community and children. Currently, the ferry is scheduled to return to full service in April 2020.

While this may seem like a minor issue for many in Alaska and across the country, this lack of transportation is a major issue for those in Angoon, as our village relies on the ferry system to keep the community functioning. Angoon does not have a barge dock that can be utilized to bring food to the island, nor does it have the financial resources to provide an alternative solution to ensure that we have the staples to get through winter. Angoon is a small Native village on Admiralty Island, 50 minutes south of Juneau by seaplane. Currently, Angoon is left with our only option to transport food for the school lunch program by seaplane, which is extremely expensive—and frankly, unreliable—during the winter months. If the seaplane is able to fly, it does not have the cargo space needed to bring the supplies in for the entire community as frequently as needed. In late October, we had six days in which the seaplanes could not fly due to weather conditions which meant that freight, food, mail and people were unable to get to the island. The local grocery store had empty shelves, which had a local mother asking the community if anyone could share milk for her child. Not only is reliability an issue, but the cost to transfer freight on the seaplane is significantly higher.

Currently, the ferry system charge is $0.24 per pound to take freight to Angoon, while the seaplane charges $1.10 per pound. Not only is this cost up significantly, but it also far exceeds the amount of the meal reimbursement our district receives to feed the students. A 16-ounce can of peas at $0.45 now costs the district $1.55, which is outside the budget based on the reimbursement per meal. On average, the district transports 3,200 pounds of food per month to feed the students—98% of Angoon students qualify for free and reduced meals. The ferry system not only has the space to transfer the volume of food needed each month to support our lunch program, but also lowers the costs associated and allows for our district to take our truck to Juneau to get the freight.

The Legislature, the governor and federal lawmakers have been unwilling to assist in finding a solution to ensure that the school’s children can continue to be fed each day while attending school. The offerings from the school lunch program are in some cases the only meals the students receive daily. The Alaska Marine Highway System is a lifeline for the community to receive freight and food to the island. The city of Angoon, the Native tribe and Chatham School District have made requests to the state, federal legislators and the governor to find a cost-effective solution to bring food to Angoon.

To date, there has not been a solution brought forward to ensure the children will receive meals each day. The most obvious solution is for the Legislature and governor to bring the ferry system to Angoon twice a month, reduced from the twice a week during peak months. This would allow for food to be delivered by the district on a monthly basis, as well as allow families the opportunity to get their own supplies at a more cost-effective way on the mainland. As superintendent, it is a sad state of affairs when students are the ones who suffer for a state’s failure or concern to address the children’s basic needs.

Bruce Houck serves as Chatham School District Superintendent in Angoon.

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