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Puerto Rico officials face outrage over school food crisis

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s government has failed to tap into millions of federal dollars set aside for the island as a growing number of unemployed parents struggle to feed their children in a U.S. territory where nearly 70 percent of public school students are poor.

The roughly $290 million that the U.S. government made available to help Puerto Rico schoolchildren amid a coronavirus lockdown has remained untouched for more than a month because local officials have not submitted a plan detailing how they intend to use the funds.

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

In a move expected to ease the food crisis caused by the shuttering of school cafeterias in mid-March, Puerto Rico’s governor announced late Wednesday that cafeteria workers would prepare meals, but only if requested by mayors of the island’s 78 municipalities. City workers would then be in charge of distributing the food to children in need.

The announcement came amid growing outrage over the situation and a day after Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez insisted that he would not reopen school cafeterias that have been closed for nearly two months. He said it was too risky to open them because 64 percent of workers are elderly and he worried about exposing them and children to the coronavirus. It’s a dilemma that school districts on the U.S. mainland have faced, with some shuttered cafeterias reopening to distribute food.

The abrupt turnaround comes weeks after Puerto Rico’s Department of Education offloaded food to nonprofit organizations and a food bank to distribute to children. Activists, teachers and a federally appointed control board had warned that it was not enough.

Teachers like Santiago vowed to keep helping impoverished families as many remained wary about the government’s announcement and its ability to meet children’s needs.

The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent 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.

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