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Food crisis deepens as Puerto Rico school cafeterias shutter

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico’s government is refusing to open school cafeterias amid coronavirus health concerns and has not tapped into millions of federal dollars set aside for the island even as a growing number of unemployed parents struggle to feed their children in a U.S. territory where nearly 70% of public school students are poor.

The local Department of Education has offloaded food to nonprofit organizations and a food bank to distribute to children, but activists, teachers and a federally appointed control board say it’s not enough and it’s not reaching those most in need.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has some $290 million available to feed school children in Puerto Rico, but the money remains untouched after more than a month because Puerto Rican officials have not submitted a plan detailing how they intend to use it.

“It makes you say, ‘Damn it, where is the help?’” said Joalice Santiago, a 4th grade teacher who buys food for her students and, like many of her co-workers, goes house by house to distribute it.

On a recent sweltering morning, Santiago popped open her trunk and grabbed a loaf of white bread as she approached Delia Vicente, an unemployed mother of two boys whose husband is hospitalized with a bacterial infection and unable to work as a debris collector.

Vicente smiled as she saw Santiago and another teacher carrying a heavy bag filled with eggs, crackers, cheese, milk, ham and orange juice, items she can’t afford to buy right now.

“I pretend to be strong, but I can’t,” Vicente said as she wiped away tears and turned away from her oldest son, who was watching. “I try not to let them see me cry.”

The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people has a poverty rate of more than 40% that is deepening with a nearly two-month lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria and a string of strong earthquakes amid a 13-year recession. It is the highest poverty rate compared with any U.S. state, and Vicente and her family fall into that group. She said teachers are the only ones who have donated food for her two boys, ages 9 and 11, despite the government saying schoolchildren are being fed since cafeterias closed in mid-March.

Eligio Hernández, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said it’s too risky to open school cafeterias because 64% of workers are elderly and he worries about exposing them and children to COVID-19. It’s a dilemma that school districts on the U.S. mainland have faced, with some shuttered cafeterias reopening to distribute food on a takeaway basis.

Hernandez's department has distributed more than 350,000 pounds of food from 704 schools to nonprofit organizations and a food bank. That food has already run out, and another nearly 180,000 pounds will soon be distributed. He insisted that school cafeterias will not reopen despite workers continuing to get paid.

Hernández declined to comment on a lawsuit that seven mothers and a group of nonprofits filed on Tuesday against him and the school system, saying the government's actions are “inhumane, cruel, inadequate, insufficient and evasive of their responsibility.” A judge has ordered the Department of Education to justify its decision by Thursday.

The lawsuit states that the 350,000 pounds of distributed food represents only a little more than a pound per student to cover their needs during more than 40 days of lockdown. Normally, Puerto Rico’s 292,000 public school children receive breakfast, lunch and a snack.

“I have children who are in the middle of a crisis because those meals were their only ones for the day,” said social worker Michelle Valentín. “Families are saying they’re not getting any donations when they call the food bank.”

Denise Santos, president of Puerto Rico’s Food Bank, has said people are hungry and urged education officials to reopen cafeterias as the lockdown continues with the government reporting at least 86 deaths and more than 1,400 confirmed coronavirus cases.

A federal board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances demanded that education officials create a food distribution plan and criticized them for donating raw food to nonprofits.

“This represents only fourteen days of food, while schools have been closed for over a month,” the board wrote in a letter to Gov. Wanda Vázquez. “Furthermore, this food is being made available to all community members; while commendable to provide food for all, this program is designed for students and their families.”

The board also joined teachers and social workers in suggesting that Puerto Rico’s government follow the lead of major U.S. cities, which are delivering the food or offering meals to go. But even some school districts in the U.S. mainland have cut back on meals as money runs out or workers become infected with COVID-19.

It’s a concern that Nelly Ayala, president of a Puerto Rico school cafeteria workers’ union, has raised, adding that they never demanded cafeterias be closed, only that employees be protected.

“We have always been here in any emergency, but this time there’s a serious personal safety issue that needs to be taken into account,” she said in a statement.

Puerto Rico’s Department of Education said it is launching a federally funded program this summer so that nonprofits can offer up to two free meals a day to children up to age 18, but many worry thousands of families cannot wait that long.

Especially hard-hit are single mothers like Jenny Encarnación, an unemployed nail technician who struggles to feed her son, a 4th grade student. As Encarnación explained how she hasn’t received any help from the government, a female passer-by who overhead the conversation interjected, “No one has!” and kept walking.

“My savings have taken a nosedive,” Encarnación continued. “I have no income.”