The food crisis worsens as school cafeterias in Puerto Rico close

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – The government of Puerto Rico has refused to open coronavirus school cafeterias for health reasons and has not taken millions of federal dollars to the island, although more and more unemployed parents are having difficulty getting their children nourish A US territory in which nearly 70% of public students are poor.

The local Department of Education has given food to nonprofits and a food bank to distribute to children. However, activists, teachers and a federally appointed control agency say that this is not enough and does not reach the most needy.

In the meantime, the U.S. government has approximately $ 290 million to support school children in Puerto Rico. However, the money remains untouched after more than a month, as Puerto Rican officials have not presented a plan detailing how they plan to use it.





© Provided by Associated Press
Angel Ruiz shows his empty chest freezer in his home, where he and his wife Ivelisse Rios find it difficult to feed their two children while the schools and cafeterias are closed to curb the spread of the new corona virus in San Juan, Puerto Rico . Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The local education ministry has given food to nonprofits and a food bank to distribute to children. However, activists, teachers and a federally appointed control agency say that this is not enough and does not reach the most needy. (AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)

“They say,” Damn, where’s the help? “Said Joalice Santiago, a 4th grade teacher who buys groceries for her students and how many of her staff go house to house to distribute.

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On a hot morning, Santiago opened her suitcase and grabbed a loaf of white bread as she approached Delia Vicente, an unemployed mother of two boys whose husband was hospitalized with a bacterial infection and couldn’t work as a garbage collector.

Vicente smiled when she saw that Santiago and another teacher were carrying a heavy bag of eggs, crackers, cheese, milk, ham and orange juice that she cannot currently afford.

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

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The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people has a poverty rate of more than 40%, which deepens with an almost two-month ban to curb the spread of the new coronavirus as the island struggles to survive Hurricane Maria and a number strong people recover earthquakes amid a 13-year recession. It is the highest poverty rate compared to a U.S. state, and Vicente and her family fall into this group. She said that only teachers have donated teachers for her two boys, ages 9 and 11, despite the government saying that schoolchildren have been fed since the cafeterias closed in mid-March.

Eligio Hernández, the education minister from Puerto Rico, said it was too risky to open school cafeterias because 64% of the workers are older and he is worried about exposing them and children to COVID-19. It is a dilemma that mainland school districts are facing as some closed cafeterias reopen to distribute takeaway food.

The Hernandez department has distributed more than 350,000 pounds of food from 704 schools to nonprofits and a food bank. The food has already been used up, and another £ 180,000 will soon be distributed. He insisted that the school cafeterias not be reopened, although workers continue to be paid.

Hernández declined to comment on a lawsuit filed by seven mothers and a group of nonprofits on Tuesday against him and the school system. The government’s actions were “inhumane, cruel, inadequate, inadequate and evading its responsibilities.” A judge instructed the Ministry of Education to justify his decision by Thursday.

The lawsuit states that the £ 350,000 food distributed is just over £ 1 per student to meet their needs during more than 40 days of curfew. The 292,000 public school children in Puerto Rico typically receive breakfast, lunch, and a snack.



Social worker Michelle Valentín, a former teacher, brings food to Angel Ruiz and Ivelisse Rios, a couple who have difficulty feeding their two children while schools are closed, to help spread the new corona virus in San Juan, Puerto Rico to contain. Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Citing health concerns, the government of Puerto Rico is refusing to open school cafeterias amid the pandemic as more and more unemployed parents struggle to feed their children in a U.S. territory where nearly 70% public school students are poor. (AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)


© Provided by Associated Press
Social worker Michelle Valentín, a former teacher, brings food to Angel Ruiz and Ivelisse Rios, a couple who have difficulty feeding their two children while schools are closed, to help spread the new corona virus in San Juan, Puerto Rico to contain. Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Citing health concerns, the government of Puerto Rico is refusing to open school cafeterias amid the pandemic as more and more unemployed parents struggle to feed their children in a U.S. territory where nearly 70% public school students are poor. (AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)

“I have children in the middle of a crisis because these meals were the only ones for the day,” said social worker Michelle Valentín. “Families say they don’t get donations when they call the food bank.”

Denise Santos, president of the Puerto Rico Food Bank, said people are hungry and have asked education officials to reopen the cafeterias as the government continues to report at least 86 deaths and more than 1,400 confirmed coronavirus cases.

A federal executive that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances has urged education officials to draw up a food distribution plan and criticized them for donating raw food to nonprofits.

“This corresponds to only fourteen days of food, while the schools have been closed for over a month,” the board wrote in a letter to Governor Wanda Vázquez. “In addition, this meal is made available to all community members. While this program is commendable to provide food for everyone, it is aimed at students and their families. “

The board also joined teachers and social workers, suggesting that the Puerto Rico government follow the example of major US cities that provide food or take-away meals. But even some school districts on the US mainland have cut their meals due to running out of money or workers being infected with COVID-19.

It is worrying that Nelly Ayala, president of a cafeteria workers union in Puerto Rico, has argued and added that they never asked for cafeterias to be closed, only that workers be protected.

“We have always been here in any emergency, but this time there is a serious personal security issue that needs to be addressed,” she said in a statement.

The Department of Education of Puerto Rico announced that it is launching a federally funded program this summer so that nonprofits can offer children up to the age of 18 up to two free meals a day. However, many fear that thousands of families will not be able to wait that long.

Single mothers like Jenny Encarnación, an unemployed nail technician who has difficulty feeding their fourth-grade son, are particularly affected. When Encarnación declared that she had received no help from the government, a passerby who was talking to herself interjected: “Nobody has!” and went on.

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

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