Parents of Public School Students Demand Access to Food Distribution

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Education turned to nonprofit organizations for food distribution, but did not establish any registry or protocol to guarantee that school cafeteria donations would reach their students

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The testimonies of dozens of families with students in Puerto Rico’s public school system who need to be fed during the curfew established to control the spread of COVID-19 exposed by organizations that work with children and communities, have not been enough to convince the Department of Education to open school cafeterias to prepare balanced meals for carry-out.

Organizations such as the Red por los Derechos de la Niñez y la Juventud en Puerto Rico and the Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE, in Spanish) have documented this population’s point of view. The INE survey, in which 2,700 families of children in the public Montessori system participated, showed that 68% are concerned about providing food for their children and 56% said they would use the school cafeteria if it were available. In addition, 4% of Montessori school teachers assistants confirmed they knew cases where a student or their family could experience food shortages due to this emergency.

Rosalyn Hernández, community leader of the Playita sector in San Juan, confirmed this concern in a video were the mother of a 16-year-old and a six-month-old baby said, “the hardest part of this situation is that you run out of food and you can’t go out (because of the curfew), you can’t work. The kids are now in the house 24/7, they don’t have access to school cafeteria service…”

Amarilis Nazario, a middle school teacher from the Gloria M. Borrero school in Guayanilla, said “there was a father in one of the school chats who warned that the internet was going to be cut off on his phone and that it wasn’t going to be a priority [for homework]. Buying food came first.”

For the past five years, the poverty level among minors in Puerto Rico has remained constant, but with an upward trend from 56% to 58%, according to the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud (IDJ, in Spanish) 2019 Child and Youth Welfare Index. Unemployment is also an aggravating factor, since 47% of families have one or both parents out-of-work. Unemployment is worse since the emergency declaration due to the coronavirus, which is evidenced in the more than 170,000 unemployment applications submitted to the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, in Spanish).

Applications to the Nutritional Assistance Program (PAN, in Spanish) have also increased. In January, after the earthquakes, the Family Department approved 8,538 requests for PAN benefits, compared to 10,258 approved since March 12, when the governor declared an emergency due to COVID-19.

Leisha Negrón is a speech therapist and she was only able to work for a month after the disruption caused by the earthquakes at the beginning of the year. She is the single mother of a 5-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. Both study at the Montessori Juan A. Sánchez public school in Juncos.

“I’m still struggling to get unemployment benefits. I applied for food stamps, but without a job … it helps, but it is not enough. It provides (food) for about two weeks. I cover the other two weeks with what I have, or child support, when I get it. If they opened the cafeterias, it would be easier because I live nearby. If there were no cafeteria staff willing to work, I would volunteer,” she said.

Puerto Rico receives the lowest monthly PAN allocation per individual: $112, compared to the 50 states and territories that receive an average of $261, according to federal program data gathered by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Those who regularly receive at least 10 meals a week in the public school cafeterias have gone without this food since the curfew order on March 16. US Department of Agriculture programs pay for the food service. The Department of Education decided to donate the food to a group of 91 nonprofit organizations, under the federal School Lunch Act of 1946 and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services Division (FNS) 2012 guidelines, ignoring that Law 85 of 2018, known as the Educational Reform, describes among the Secretary’s duties “to make school cafeteria and school transportation services available.”

“These organizations handle managing and distribution of meals made with the food provided and they do it for the population that they traditionally serve; this includes students from those disadvantaged communities. The School Food Authority (AEA, in Spanish) documents the donations, in case the FNS requests it or they’re required for a future monitoring process,” the Department of Education press Spokesman Aniel Bigio told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).

Julen Campbell, regional communications director for FNS, said in an email that, “All schools and institutions have the statutory authority to donate all excess cafeteria food to nonprofit organizations or food banks. They don’t need to ask for authorization to exercise their authority.” According to the federal official, unprepared or unconsumed cafeteria food due to physical isolation counts as “surplus” or “excess food.”

The Department of Education left up to nonprofit organizations to determine to whom and how the food will be distributed.

Since at least March 14, the Frente Amplio en Defensa de la Educación Pública (FADEP) has been calling for the opening of food-service centers in drive-through formats, while members of Mesa Social have been demanding the opening of school cafeterias since April 8. Meanwhile, the Fiscal Control Board (JCF, in Spanish) has also been quick to call on the Department of Education to establish a meal distribution plan. Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez has not responded to any of the claims, the CPI confirmed.

“We haven’t received a comprehensive plan from the Department of Education   with details of the food distribution process and the population that is benefiting in each organization. We’ll be sending another letter to the Department requesting more information and offering other alternatives in the mid- and long-term,” said JCF Spokesman Edward Zayas.

“In conversations with parents, not one has said they have any kind of support, not even the so-called allocations that the organizations [that received food donations from school cafeterias] are distributing, or hot food. They haven’t received the PAN, or what they’ve received isn’t enough,” said Carmen Warren, spokeswoman of the Special Education Class-Action Lawsuit Committee.

The USDA waived all states and territories from the required schedule for breakfast, lunch, and summer food programs for public school children as part of the Child Nutrition Response Act under COVID-19. It also authorized parents to just pick up the food to minimize exposure to the virus. The US Virgin Islands opted for the latter alternative, and its Department of Education coordinates the delivery of prepared meals during two hours from Monday to Friday. Even with these options, the Department of Education in Puerto Rico chose to donate food without a plan of who it would reach.

The first schools food donation was on March 29 to the Salvation Army and the Food Bank of Puerto Rico. A second round of donations took place on April 13 to 89 additional NGO´s.

Food Bank President Denise L. Santos noted it was 44 pallets of food equivalent to “four weeks of food distributed through the 22 collection centers that have been working together with the Food Bank’s efforts over the past seven weeks. But these food donations represent an insignificant amount compared to the island’s real nutritional needs.”

Coordinating the second round of the food donation fell on the local chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD). However, it was not until April 16 that the Department of Education issued an internal communication authorizing the distribution.

Rev. David Guadalupe, president of VOAD in Puerto Rico, said, “we’re a kind of nonprofit coalition that is in all states. Our role is to coordinate and create collaborative opportunities among organizations. We serve as a bridge with federal and state agencies.”

Guadalupe said the coordination began April 1, once they received the list of 704 school cafeterias from the DE so that a volunteer from the 95 organizations registered in the VOAD platform would pick up the food.

“We explained the procedure that upon arrival, they had to do an inventory of the delivery and sign the form that the school cafeteria employee gave them. A very short process to avoid exposure among all   parties,” he said. He also pointed out that what they received from the cafeterias was up to the Department of Education, “it depends on their internal distribution.”

The School Cafeteria Employees Association was reluctant to show up for work to prepare meals even after the letter from the JCF, insisting that more than 60% of its manpower, mostly women, are high risk population for contracting COVID-19. However, its President Nelly Ayala has said that it is the government’s decision not to open the school cafeterias, and while there are employees willing to work, security measures must be taken, which they are willing to discuss with the Secretary.

But, how were these donations distributed? “That was left to the discretion of the NGO´s, depending on each of their service plans. Families with children represent a large portion,” Guadalupe said.

Proyecto Matria is one of the organizations that received these food donations. Its director explained that they filled out an application on the VOAD platform and went to pick up a delivery at the Food Bank.

“We have picked up two food deliveries, one in Caguas, one in Mayagüez, and we have one pending in Orocovis. Once we registered with VOAD, an employee from cafeteria X in the town calls. How do they manage it internally or establish the order [of requests from organizations]? I really don’t know. It’s possible that there are towns or communities that have not seen any of these food distributions despite having thousands of children from the public education system because the structure was not focused on children,” Pagán said, while stressing that “Matria’s position as well as of the Social Table is that this food distribution doesn’t fulfill the Department of Education duty to feed children.”

In addition, she confirmed that the organization had to buy additional products because the donation did not complete a balanced food basket.

She also pointed out that the budget that the Department of Education receives from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), “is so big that it allows them to hire temporary staff to cook, or hire volunteer coordinators, if they don’t want to risk older [cafeteria] employees. They can even employ a delivery system, because the Department of Education   already pays for school buses. They can use that same system to deliver food to locations in communities where they know those children live.”

Warren mentioned that, “There are mayors willing to prepare and distribute meals to the elderly centers they already serve; they’re not going to invent a new protocol. There are schools that receive food from off-site cafeterias, that are prepared in other cafeterias; it wouldn’t be anything new.” The Mayors Federation asked the Governor to open the cafeterias and anticipated that “the municipalities are willing to participate in an effort to coordinate with the State to guarantee that the highest sanitation measures are applied to food provision processes.”

Another organization that received food from the DE was the Club Semillitas de Amor Inc., chaired by Ana Vázquez, which focused on distributing food in 10 neighborhoods in Bayamón.

“We keep a record of everything to inform VOAD where, when, and to whom it is delivered. When it is picked up in the cafeteria, we also sign a receipt for what was procured,” Vázquez told the CPI.

Meanwhile, Rev. Elías Rojas, spokesman for the Pentecostal Social Services Agency (ASSPEN, in Spanish), assured that cafeteria donations provided food to 1,299 families during the first weeks of April, in addition to nine nursing homes and five youth shelters across the island.

In the case of PR Rises, the group coordinated with VOAD to collect donations from 203 school cafeterias. Sara López, president of the organization registered in Puerto Rico and in Florida, said that between 65 and 67 organizations joined “and signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with us to distribute the food in a week, because most of it was going to go bad due to their expiration date.”

“In our case, the focus was first to serve families with children and single mothers and then the elderly,” said López, adding, “We’re trying to maximize whatever there is. We guarantee that this process, although improvised, is being done correctly.”

The President of VOAD said that he will submit a report to the Department of Education regarding the geographical areas that the organizations covered, and everything that was delivered. “It has been a titanic, beautiful job, and they’re truly that silent front line that is putting up the best effort to deliver food to many in Puerto Rico,” Guadalupe said.

Even with the pressure from New Progressive Party mayors to reopen school cafeterias, Chief of Staff Antonio Pabón insisted it is not the best alternative. He acknowledged that food donations have federal support.

He also expressed confidence that the organizations in charge of distributing the donated food “do so after screening the needs of each sector.”

Pabón also urged municipal executives to “use the $100 million distributed among the municipalities to meet the needs of their citizens as a result of the emergency,” and confirmed that after a phone conversation with Carlos Molina Rodríguez, president of the Mayor’s Federation, he vowed to include the municipal Emergency Management personnel in food distribution tasks.

The same day that Pabón issued the statement in response to the mayors, the Department of Education opened a request for proposals for “summer camps, churches, faith-based and community-based organizations, and private nonprofit organizations” interested in “offering free nutritious food to children and youth ages 1-18 as part of the Summer Food Program.”

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