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Lawmakers Push Puerto Rico on School Meals Distribution

Lawmakers Push Puerto Rico on School Meals Distribution
April 9, 2020
Press Release

Washington, DC – U.S. Members of Congress wrote the Puerto Rico Department of Education today, urging the agency to ramp up distribution of school meals to low-income students. While the Island and its school system have been on lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly a month, meals have not been distributed to students. On April 7, the Department announced it would partner with local nonprofits to distribute meals to children. However, few details on how that plan will be executed have been released. 
Among other requests, the letter, led by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), presses the agency on: when meals will be made available; how many meals students will receive daily; and whether adults in need will also be able to access food, as is occurring in school districts like New York City and Los Angeles.  
“For many Puerto Rican families in need, school is a vital food source, ensuring children consistently have access to healthy meals,” Velázquez said. “Puerto Rico has the highest child poverty rate in the United States, and it would be unconscionable for these children to go hungry due to inaction. With the pandemic cutting families off from this vital nutritional link, we need to know what the Department is doing to get food distributed quickly. There’s no time to waste.”
In addition to Velázquez, the letter is signed by: Reps. Caroline B. Maloney (D-NY); Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez (D-NY); Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Darren Soto (D-FL).   The text of the letter is below.


Dear Secretary Hernandez:
 Congress acted swiftly and thoroughly to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law on March 18, 2020.  Title II of this Act authorizes the USDA to: (1) issue a single waiver of child nutrition program requirements to all states under the National School Lunch Program for purposes of providing meals and snacks with appropriate safety measures for COVID-19 and (2) to grant waivers of requirements to allow non-congregate feeding in the Child and Adult Care Food Program for purposes of providing meals and snacks with appropriate safety measures concerning COVID-19.
On March 25th, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the USDA issued a memo that states:  “[p]ursuant to section 2202(a) of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (the Act) (PL 116-127) and in light of the exceptional circumstances of this public health emergency, (FNS) is granting a nationwide waiver to support access to nutritious meals while minimizing potential exposure to the novel coronavirus (COVID–19). This waiver applies to the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Summer Food Service Program (the child nutrition programs). Section 2202(a) of the Act permits the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a waiver for all states to provide meals under the child nutrition programs, with appropriate safety measures, as determined by the Secretary”.1 As such, Puerto Rico, through its Department of Education (Department), is included as part of this national waiver. 2
It has been almost a month since Puerto Rico entered its island-wide lockdown in response to COVID19. Schools have closed for this same amount of time. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that throughout this time, school meals have not been distributed to children throughout Puerto Rico. As the lockdown continues, the economic and food security situation on the island will worsen. The financial strain that many Puerto Rican families will endure in the coming months will be significant.
More than half of all children in Puerto Rico live under the poverty line (58%). Out of this percent, around 38% live in extreme poverty with incomes of around $3,950 annually according to data from the Puerto Rico Community Survey 2017.3 These alarming numbers indicate that the family of these children limited resources to meet children’s basic needs.  The public health and economic crisis generated by COVID-19 will more than likely increase the current poverty rate. Puerto Rico’s Department of Education must use all available resources to help Puerto Rican families palliate this new crisis. Yesterday, you stated that the food supplies in the Department’s possession will be donated and distributed to non-profits around the island that will in turn provide meals to the students. 4 Although we applaud that a strategy is now in place to respond to this issue, we urgently ask your Department to address the following questions: 
1. When will the Department’s free meal program for the children of Puerto Rico begin?  When will the Department announce eligible non-profits for this program? What criteria will be used to select the non-profits?  2. How many meals will be provided to students daily? Will such program continue until the last day of the academic school year if in-person classes do not resume? 3. Should the Department begin distributing meals through the selected non-profits, how will the Department inform children, guardians, caregivers, and families of such initiative? What measures will the Department set in place to ensure special needs populations (i.e. students with disabilities) are served with meals? 4. How will the Department oversee the non-profits that will now have the responsibility of meal distribution?  5. Local school districts like the New York City Department of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District have provided food to both adults and children in need. Will the Department consider expanding service to adults if conditions warrant?
Please provide answers to the above questions within the next 48 hours. 
Nydia M. Velázquez