'Mamá, I'm Still Hungry': In Puerto Rico, Child Hunger Becomes A Flashpoint
It hadn't been easy, but before the pandemic Elia Gonzalez had always managed to keep her family fed by stretching her food stamps and her partner's modest income as a D.J. at bars around Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. That changed in mid-March, when those bars closed and her daughter's school, where she'd gotten free breakfast and lunch, did too.
By April 20, the kitchen cabinet was almost empty. Gonzalez and her partner, who is undocumented and does not qualify for unemployment, went four days without eating so they'd have enough food for the children until Gonzalez's next monthly food stamps benefit landed on her EBT card in early May. Still, by the end of April, all she had left for the children was rice with a little egg mixed in.
Her sons, shy 4 and 5-year-olds, would ask for more. But her oldest, Angellia, a talkative, curly-haired kindergartener, tried to reassure her mother.
"She said, 'Mamá, I'm still hungry'," Gonzalez said, "but she told me it was okay because she was big and could wait until I got more food. That hit me hard."
The coronavirus emergency has worsened hunger nationally, with recent polling finding that one in five U.S. households can't afford enough to eat. But Puerto Rico's rates of food insecurity have been higher than that since long before the pandemic. The U.S. territory has a higher poverty rate than any state.
A study by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics in 2015 found that 22 percent of adults reported skipping meals or eating smaller portions because they didn't have money for food. That was before the island's bankruptcy, a string of natural disasters, and now the coronavirus lockdown, which closed businesses but also the schools that provided two daily meals to a majority of Puerto Rico's schoolchildren.
"And so it's not an exaggeration to say that hunger in Puerto Rico right now is probably much higher than it was in 2015," said José Caraballo-Cueto, an economist at the University of Puerto Rico's campus in the city of Cayey. He estimates that the pandemic has driven the island's unemployment rate to an astounding 46 percent. "And the average saving rate here is zero. So if you have a social crisis like this, people don't have that buffer during the lockdown."
In recent days, it's a fight over the shuttered school cafeterias that has brought the issue of hunger on the island – and specifically childhood hunger — into full view.
Governor Wanda Vázquez earned early praise for taking aggressive steps to combat the coronavirus. But after closing schools on March 16, she refused to allow their cafeterias to continue providing free lunches to children, as they have in most communities in the U.S. The governor initially said she feared exposing cafeteria workers to the virus. Many of those workers are older women.
But as the lockdown dragged on, as bureaucratic hurdles delayed the arrival of federal stimulus and unemployment payments, and as the local government struggled to process a surge in new food stamp applications, people's patience wore thin.
On social media, stories circulated about people like Elia Gonzalez who had run out of food for their children. One mother, Genesis Montañez, wrote to her son's teacher that all she had for her kids was water. Parents and politicians demanded the cafeterias reopen. Cafeteria employees said that with proper protective equipment, they were willing to go back to work. Activists sued and announced a protest of cars winding through the streets of San Juan.
On April 29, the governor acquiesced, saying a limited number of cafeterias would be allowed to reopen the following week. The island's 78 mayors would coordinate delivery of the meals to children who needed them.
"Public opinion really forced the government to reconsider its decision and reopen the lunch rooms," said Denise Santos, president of the Puerto Rico Food Bank. She said that after the schools closed, she was inundated with more requests for food for children than the food bank could meet. "Most Puerto Ricans live from paycheck to paycheck, so eight weeks without any income made the situation very urgent for a lot of families."
The first 80 cafeterias opened on May 6, and it was a fitful start. Many mayors reported that the island's education department delivered far less food than they needed or had requested. Others, like the mayor of the coastal town of Loíza, postponed meal distributions until this week rather than risk having to turn children away.
On Monday, the island's education secretary, Eligio Hernández, said his department had opened another 28 cafeterias this week and was preparing nearly 64,000 lunches a day. He also said families in some rural towns could sign up to have nonperishable food mailed to their homes. Then, on Wednesday, he closed 32 school kitchens after saying 50 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.
Criticism of the government's food response has not subsided.
"The government has only served 10 percent of children," said Giovanni Roberto, a prominent anti-hunger activist who runs a small network of community soup kitchens, known as comedores sociales. "Our demands are clear. Open all school cafeterias, and serve everyone who needs it."
In recent weeks, Roberto has been leading the calls to open the cafeterias. His profile was raised further when he was arrested on April 30 while leading the caravan of cars making their way through the streets of San Juan in protest. He was charged with violating the governor's stay-at-home order, but the arrest, broadcast on television, was widely criticized as unjustified. A judge dismissed the charges.
The ordeal endeared many people in Puerto Rico to Roberto's cause. The community kitchens he runs with volunteers became an important source of food after Hurricane Maria, when the local and federal government failed to get supplies to people frantic for them. Since then, the comedores sociales have operated on shoestring budgets. But Roberto's recent prominence demanding the government do more to help Puerto Rico's poor during the pandemic has attracted tens of thousands of dollars in donations.
"We're improving our center to have a bigger warehouse," Roberto said. The main facility – a salvaged community center in the city of Caguas — has shifted to grocery giveaways rather than serving meals on site. "We've gotten a lot of support, so we've expanded from 200 weekly grocery deliveries to 700 this week."
Still, Roberto said that was not enough, and hoped the judge overseeing a lawsuit that advocates filed on behalf of several mothers will force the government to open more school cafeterias. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.
Denise Santos, the food bank president, said the pandemic's economic fallout has elevated a conversation about hunger and poverty in Puerto Rico that politicians – and many citizens — prefer to avoid.
"Our politicians talk as if we were a first class country, and although there have been some programs in our history that have improved the middle class, in reality we are very poor. We always have been," Santos said. "But if you look at our Facebook page for the food bank, people comment that in Puerto Rico there is no hunger because everybody receives food stamps. People are in denial, period."
In the Río Piedras section of San Juan, Christel Galindez Garcia, a community leader, saw the hunger in her neighborhood start to balloon within days of the island's shutdown.
"Older people, immigrants, mothers with children," Galindez said. She has been picking up thirty cooked meals a day from a church near her home and delivering them to people's houses. She visits different families every day.
"Do you know when you know people are really in need?" she asked. "When you show up with a plate of food and they start to cry."
One of the people Galindez visited last Wednesday was Elia Gonzalez, who said that the day before, she'd gone through the last of the rice and egg she had been feeding her three kids.
"Right now I have nothing in the kitchen," Gonzalez said. "Nothing, nothing."
Though some school cafeterias had distributed meals that day, she said none were close to her apartment, and she doesn't have a car. Her federal stimulus payment was nowhere in sight because the island's treasury secretary, charged with distributing that money on behalf of the federal government, has said that people receiving food assistance will be among the last to get it.
"And we're the ones who need that help the most," Gonzalez said. On the bright side, her monthly food stamps had just arrived, and that would let her restock her kitchen. Without her partner's income, she said, she could buy enough food for two to three weeks.
Wednesday was also her daughter Angellia's sixth birthday.
Christel Galindez, the community leader, knew this, and during her food delivery run, she drove up to Gonzalez's front door playing the birthday song through her car's speakers. She used a P.A. system to summon Angellia outside. The little girl emerged with a big smile, and spun a little pirouette to the music.
Galindez handed Gonzalez three to-go-containers of food and a box with three cupcakes, one for each of her children.
Erika P. Rodríguez contributed reporting from San Juan, P.R. contributed to this story
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