SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A judge on Thursday gave Puerto Rico’s education secretary 24 hours to open all public school cafeterias in the U.S. territory or face arrest as impoverished students struggle to obtain free meals amid the pandemic.
The ruling is the latest development in a lawsuit that several mothers and nonprofit organizations had filed in late April to demand the reopening of cafeterias that serve 292,000 students, of whom nearly 70% are poor, and had remained closed for some two months amid the pandemic.
Since then, the Department of Education has reopened only some cafeterias as activists warn that students remain in need of meals on an island of 3.2 million people with a poverty rate that is higher than any U.S. state.
Among them are the two sons of Delia Vicente, whose school cafeteria in an impoverished neighborhood in the capital of San Juan remains closed. Vicente said she and her husband canceled one cell phone contract and rely heavily on food stamps in order to afford food for their sons.
“We’ll do anything for our children,” she said. “We’re managing little by little because we also have to pay the power bill, the water bill.”
Puerto Rico has some 780 school cafeterias across the island, and 152 are currently operating, education department spokesman Aniel Bigio told The Associated Press, adding that the re-openings were based on requests received from 73 of 78 total mayors in Puerto Rico. The remaining municipalities launched their own food distribution plan, he said.
Despite those re-openings, the ruling issued Thursday noted that the education department did not comply with an order issued last month to reopen all cafeterias that prior to the pandemic provided breakfast, lunch and a snack daily to students.
“The only course left to follow…is to find someone in contempt,” the judge wrote.
Education Secretary Eligio Hernández tweeted that the department is complying with court orders and that it would submit documents to prove it.
Hernández had initially insisted he would not reopen any cafeterias because it was too risky, noting in part that 64% of workers are elderly. The department instead offloaded its food to nonprofit organizations and a food bank, but it quickly ran out, and activists said it was not reaching those most in need. In recent weeks, the department was forced to close some cafeterias it had re-opened after some workers tested positive for COVID-19.
Janice Soliván, attorney for Casa Juana Colón, one of the nonprofits who sued, criticized the government for not adhering to the original ruling.
“The organizations don’t have a duty to feed,” she said. “We do this with a lot of sacrifice because there’s no other option.”