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School Lunches in Puerto Rico

Since the 1960s, schools in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico have provided affordable hot lunches for children and subsidized the meals of children who needed that help.

A 2012 study determined that the costs of providing school lunches for Alaska and Hawaii were greater than related costs in the 48 contiguous states, but the researchers said that they were unable to get the information needed for Puerto Rico. The factors identified as increasing costs for providing food in Alaska and Hawaii included a number of considerations related to geography:

  • Increased transportation costs for foods
  • Limited options for locally grown foods
  • Limited access to food donations
  • Limited access to cooperative buying or farm-to-food options

Hawaii and Alaska both receive higher payments per student than the 48 contiguous states, but Puerto Rico’s reimbursement is the same as that for the 48 states. Puerto Rico subsidizes breakfast and lunch completely for all students; 91.4% of students are eligible for free lunches, according to the study, and all the schools have been identified as “severe need” schools.

While the 2012 study had some limited information for Puerto Rico, two earlier studies were referenced, and neither had included any data for Puerto Rico. It seems possible that the lack of information for Puerto Rico might be connected with the fact that Puerto Rico’s school lunch reimbursement doesn’t reflect the challenges of their geography, but it may simply be that Puerto Rico is not a state.

Recently, the Hon. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands introduced legislation intended to determine whether  the U.S. Department of Agriculture is appropriately reimbursing schools in its possessions, including Puerto Rico, for school lunches. Sablan reminded the Congress that they had already given the Secretary of Agriculture authority to adjust reimbursement rates for schools off the mainland. Sablan continued:

The Secretary has used this authority to set adjusted—and place-appropriate rates—for both Alaska and Hawaii, where transportation and other factors add to the cost of providing meals in the schools. In the other insular areas—the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—however, where distance and reverse economies of scale can increase costs just as in Alaska and Hawaii, schools are reimbursed at the standard national rate that applies throughout the continental U.S.

Sablan expressed a belief that there are significant differences in the cost of food in the continental U.S. and in its possessions, just as there are between the contiguous 48 states and the newer states of Alaska and Hawaii:

Those of us who shuttle between our duties in Congress and the insular areas we represent are familiar with the costs of food and other services both here and at home. We know that there are differences. And, if these differences mean that children in our areas are receiving less food or less nutritious food or no food at all because the current reimbursement rates are inadequate, then we need that information. By the same token— though this is not my expectation—if the federal government is overpaying, then Congress needs to know that, as well.

The legislation calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to report to the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry of the Senate on the differences in costs and whether those costs are at variance with the reimbursement.

Read Sablan’s remarks.

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