This week, and all month long, we celebrate national school lunches. As excited as I am to recognize how far we have come to improve the quality and quantity of food we serve our children at school, I can’t help but think about students in Puerto Rico who are not celebrating.
School lunch might not be everyone’s favorite but fortunately, in the United States, parents know they can send their kids to school and they will have at least one guaranteed meal and a teacher-led classroom. Families in Puerto Rico who sent their students back to school last month did not have that same assurance.
Reports of disastrous school conditions came at the same time as the release of a new study that determined nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. This latest news further emphasizes the need to adequately address the onging crisis in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s public school system was struggling from falling enrollment and the government’s financial woes before Hurricane Maria struck on September 20, 2017, destroying much of the island’s infrastructure and sending even more residents fleeing to the mainland.
In the United States, 30 million children are assured at least one warm meal, possibly more with the assistance of the national school lunch program, breakfast program, and a myriad of community partners. Most states provide after-schools meals in communities where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and we know many teachers are spending money from their own paychecks to buy food for hungry students. In Puerto Rico, many students returned to the classroom uncertain of whether they would have a teacher at all.
It is hard to argue that every child deserves access to food at the very least – and more importantly – nutritious food (a debate for another time). Food security was already a threat in Puerto Rico – they import 85 percent of their food. Hurricane Maria destroyed a majority of the island’s crop production and any agricultural advancements.
The devastation of the hurricane has implications beyond limiting food access. As students returned to school this August, investigators report that they went back to rodent- and termite-infested buildings without electricity or a functioning kitchen. It goes without saying, schools will continue to struggle to provide nutritious meals to students if they cannot even prepare meals and serve them in a safe, clean environment.
Investigators with the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) published a seven-page report just three days before the start of the 2018-2019 school year detailing the critical concerns of the Puerto Rican public school system. Teachers and school staff, including cafeteria workers, have yet to be assigned a teaching position for the new school year. Even more alarming, multiple schools do not have staff hired to teach and feed our students in Puerto Rico. Can you imagine sending your child to a school that does not have working electricity, has limited food and no capability of preparing food, is pest-infested, and, the kicker, has no teachers?
It is understandable that schools are struggling. As a result of the mass destruction, 254 schools were closed because of infrastructure issues even more catastrophic than those described above. Our children in Puerto Rico have lost their homes, belongings, and favorite toys. Some have lost family members. Now they are being forced out of their schools.
It’s easy for many Americans to dismiss the aftermath of a natural disaster that occurred over a year ago thousands of miles away. But we must not put the devastation affecting our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico out of mind. If it were your own child, what would you want and expect from the school system?
We place great importance on providing nutritious food and a quality education to the children in our country. As a part of the United States, we have the same obligation to students in Puerto Rico as we do for those in our own neighborhoods.
Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt is the associate director of wellness and nutrition policy at The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University.