'Too much waste': Mayors wary of leftover school meals

MEALS TO GO: George Washington High School staff distribute to-go plates as part of the Grab-N-Go school meals program at the school's campus in Mangilao on April 20, 2020. Post file photo

A number of families weren't picking up precooked student meals from schools and the leftover meals end up looking like "dog food" because of unreliable packaging, so a large volume of meals have gone to waste since last week, mayors said on Tuesday.

Education Superintendent Jon Fernandez said his department has reduced the number of school meals from 11,000 to around 8,000, "and will continue to make adjustments to limit the amount of leftovers."

"As of this week, we already made adjustments to give the mayors only the amounts of food they request. We apologize to the mayors for the issues they have had to deal with. As I mentioned, I immediately addressed the issue after (Dededo Mayor Melissa) Savares shared it with me this weekend," Fernandez told The Guam Daily Post.

School meal distribution resumed only last week, or a week after the governor shut down schools to in-person learning over surging numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

During their first Zoom meeting since the pandemic started, members of the Mayors' Council of Guam on Tuesday said more can be done to avoid wasting food. The mayors also acknowledged that some families lack the transportation to get to distribution sites to pick up the meals. 

Mayors offered recommendations and shared the sentiments of some families, including the preference for dry goods over precooked meals so the food will last longer.

Umatac Mayor Johnny Quinata said it's disheartening to see "too much waste" of food, adding that about 30 school meals were dumped in each of several trash cans in his village, starting with last week's distribution. 

"Every time my staff go out, we're finding those (meal) plates for students in our drums, by the bus stops," Quinata said. "They're probably giving us too much, so they need to lower it down so they don't go to waste."

Served hours later 

Dededo Mayor Melissa Savares said John F. Kennedy High School reached out to her one day last week, seeking help distributing about 600 leftover school meals to residents in housing areas so the meals wouldn't go to waste.

By the time the mayor's office got to the food, the gravy sauces were already dripping and got mixed up with other items, Savares said.

In Dededo, two schools also asked her for help distributing more than 200 leftover school meals on the first two days, she said.

Savares said, hours before the MCOG meeting, her office got a call from Sodexo asking how many meals her office can distribute "rather than giving us 200 at 1:30 in the afternoon."

The mayor also has communicated the availability of meals to Dededo WhatsApp groups, to help those in need.

"The concern that Mayor McDonald had was there's so much leftover that, at the end of the day, nobody wants to take something that was cooked at 8 o'clock in the morning and then feed them to their families," Savares said. "He felt terrible wasting it, so I asked the superintendent that they may provide dry goods rather than precooked meals and work that way.

Tamuning Mayor Louise Rivera, Agana Heights Mayor Paul McDonald and other mayors also helped the schools in their villages distribute the leftover meals, but the volume was more than they could handle, and the condition of the food was so unappetizing that families refused to take it.

MCOG Vice President Robert Hofmann, mayor of Sinajana, said GDOE or Sodexo may have to invest in vacuum-sealed food packages, as is done with senior citizen meals.

That way, he said, the food items don't get jumbled during handling and transportation. For example, he said, the vegetable dish doesn't get mixed with the dessert. Other mayors agreed.

"You might as well hand them in plastic bags and hand to them. It looks like dog food but that's how they get it. So it's a really sad case of waste," Hofmann said, adding that some GHURA housing residents also refused to take the free meals because of what the food looked like.

MCOG President Jesse Alig, mayor of Piti, said he will discuss the matter further with GDOE.

"All of us that help with the meals see the condition that it’s in. If you're not going to eat it, why would anyone else, right, so I get it," Alig said after listening to the concerns of mayors.

No transportation 

Savares said many of the students' families have not been picking up the prepackaged food at schools.

Lack of transportation, she said, could be the biggest factor. So mayors have been helping the schools, she said.

Fernandez said, because GDOE had just begun distribution last week, it's been trying to gauge demand from families in those first days.

"We should be much better this week," he said.

Fernandez said the meal distribution program is a short-term effort.

"We intend to return to in-school meals as soon as possible. Last year, when we anticipates being closed for longer, we ordered more nonperishable food items to distribute. It is not possible to make these types of adjustments when you are going from week to week unsure of whether we will be in school or in remote learning," he said.

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero had not made a decision whether to authorize schools to resume in-person learning soon.

Alig also recognized that mayors and their staff members have taken on more tasks, from distributing food commodities to communities in general to assisting with other COVID-19 prevention efforts.

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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