Judge to hear lawsuit on Puerto Rico school food crisis

DANICA COTO
The coordinator of Comedores Sociales (Social Canteens), Giovanni Roberto, a non-profit entity dedicated to offering hot meals in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, carries supplies before handing out an order in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Puerto Rico's government is refusing to open school cafeterias amid a coronavirus pandemic as a growing number of unemployed parents struggle to feed their children. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A judge on Thursday agreed to consider a lawsuit filed by a group of mothers and nonprofits who accuse the U.S. territory’s government of dodging its responsibility to feed public school children amid a coronavirus lockdown.

The judge’s refusal to dismiss the lawsuit as requested by the government comes amid new problems that have arisen since the island’s Department of Education abruptly changed its position last week and announced it would open school cafeterias under certain restrictions. It had previously refused to do so, citing concerns of contagion among students and cafeteria workers, of which 64% are elderly.

Since the reopening of certain school cafeterias, the government revealed that more than 30 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 while activists say many students are not receiving meals, noting also that only one instead of the usual two meals a day are being distributed.

“We cannot be satisfied until there’s no one left to feed,” attorney Osvaldo Burgos said in a phone interview.

The judge set a hearing for May 15, and in the meantime, Burgos worries that the ongoing problems will only worsen.

Nearly 70% of public school students in Puerto Rico are poor, and many on the island were outraged that cafeterias had remained closed for more than a month since the lockdown was imposed in mid-March. The Department of Education had offloaded its food to nonprofit organizations and a food bank, but teachers and others warned it wasn’t enough and that it wasn’t reaching those most in need.

On Thursday, education officials said that more than 46,000 meals were distributed in the second day since some cafeterias reopened, and that another 35 cafeterias will reopen next week in what Education Secretary Eligio Hernández described as “complicated logistics."

“Each day, we’ll be making adjustments,” he said in a statement.

Spokesman Aniel Bigio did not immediately return a request for comment regarding the judge's ruling.

The judge said he would decide next week whether the lawsuit, which was filed before school cafeterias reopened, has been rendered moot. If that's not the case, he said he would resolve the concerns raised in the lawsuit.