Ensuring federally funded nutrition assistance for thousands of students living in poverty in Puerto Rico is an inescapable government responsibility, even amid COVID-19 prevention measures.
Addressing this social priority requires creative mechanisms. A combination of resources between school cafeterias, municipalities, the private sector, and non-profit organizations could ensure the safe preparation and distribution of the meals that students in disadvantaged areas need.
The Department of Education should consider the reopening of school cafeterias as several sectors have demanded. If opening them is not feasible in the short term, the agency should improve initiatives already taken, thus ensuring that nearly 234,000 children receive the food they are entitled to.
With strict hygiene and protection measures, the kitchens of many school cafeterias could be used to prepare the meals.
Opening school cafeterias would also support the agriculture sector, an area of the Puerto Rican economy that becomes even more important amid emergencies. Contracts with local producers for the supply of fruit, vegetables, and other fresh products to the agency are still in force. If not used to provide nutritious meals for students in the public system as agreed in the contracts, all these products may end up lost.
Some U.S. states have opened school cafeterias and distribute food on buses that have been hired to transport students. They have created regulated delivery centers where beneficiaries pick up food through a car service or directly delivered to the most vulnerable families, following hygiene and safety precautions. Other jurisdictions have established partnerships with restaurants that, with strict sanitary regulations, produce meals for students living in poverty.
The Department of Education announced that it has given 375,000 pounds of food to non-profit organizations to prepare and deliver meals. However, it is estimated that the initiative would only reach 2.3 percent of the school population who need regular nutritional meals.
When reviewing official decisions taken so far to ensure nutritional assistance to 57 percent of children living under poverty levels on the island, we find that in 2015 the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics documented that 22 percent of our children received only one hot meal per day and in school cafeterias. Today, with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, that group is likely to be larger, according to economists.
Nutrition experts have pointed out that adequate nutrition from early childhood, starting with a balanced breakfast and a nutritious lunch, is essential for strengthening the immune system, a shield against infectious diseases. When operating on a regular basis, school cafeterias serve 60,000 breakfasts and 155,000 lunches. At the end of the academic semester, they continue operating to serve the needs of low-income students.
Nutritional deficiency in our children demands a rapid response from the government, which is also responsible for the delay in disbursing basic relief for parents who have been unemployed since March. The processing of new applications for the Nutrition Assistance Program is also very slow. Meanwhile, the regular social assistance in other areas is fractured by the extraordinary situation caused by the curfew and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The emergency requires the efficient design and implementation of public policy to address essential needs such as food. Children are a valuable treasure that must always receive special attention, especially during crises. It is time for the government to assume its responsibility so that our children do not remain unprotected.