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Youth Development Institute: Federal gov’t is withholding aid for poor kids

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Nonprofit organization Youth Development Institute is urging the Puerto Rico Department of the Family to urge the federal government to disburse some $30 million a month in funding approved in March, which have yet to be disbursed, to aid the island’s poor kids.

The nonprofit blamed the federal government’s bureaucracy for the delay in funding for the electronic transfer of funds program the destined to address food insecurity of some 300,000 children in Puerto Rico’s public education system.

These funds are available after the extension to Puerto Rico of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (PEBT) program attached to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federal Nutrition Service (FNS), the nonprofit said.

This program was established in March in the U.S. mainland to provide funds equivalent to what was invested in breakfast and lunch in school cafeterias through electronic transfers to families with children enrolled in schools affected by the closures due to the pandemic.

Puerto Rico was excluded from the legislation until Sept. 30, when Congress approved including the territories in the measure. However, after almost two months since extending the program to the island, the disbursement has not yet been made, the nonprofit said.

It is estimated that 58.3% of the island’s children live in or under poverty levels.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, but not all equally. Since the beginning of this crisis, more than 300,000 children in Puerto Rico don’t have access to food due to the closure of school cafeterias and the impoverishment of their families,” said Eduardo Carrera, CEO of the Youth Development Institute.

“Disparities in the treatment and management of the COVID response among ethnic groups in the United States have been documented in several studies and official documents,” he said.

“The implementation of the PEBT program in Puerto Rico could be one of the most concrete examples of the marginalization of vulnerable populations,” he said.

“Puerto Rico is the jurisdiction with the highest percentage of children living in poverty and the last to provide aid to its students. Our students have been waiting nine months for relief from their food insecurity,” Carrera said.

The $30 million monthly allocation translate into a monthly contribution of between $114 and $133.20 per month per child participating in the program, providing relief to thousands of families living at or below poverty levels, said María Enchautegui, director of research and spokesperson for the Youth Development Institute.

“This not only represents an economic relief to the families, but also gives them logistical help by being able to purchase the food from the school program at their convenience,” she said.

“It’s important that both the Department of the Family, the Family Department’s Socio-Economic Development Administration, [known as ADSEF in Spanish], the Department of Education and FNS expedite the approval of a plan to implement the PEBT program,” Enchautegui said.

Youth Development Institute officials said that despite having approved the extension of the PEBT for Puerto Rico in September, the island still does not have the guidelines of the federal agency to submit a work plan for the use of the funds.

The federal guidelines that became available on Nov. 16 for states and territories do not have information on the implementation processes in territories with no access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Puerto Rico has to take additional steps to the states and territories to submit a plan to the USDA.

Citing a study by the Brookings Institute, Enchautegui said that the PEBT has moved at least 2.7 to 3.9 million children in low-income families out of food insecurity in the United States.

“All 50 states as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands have had access to these funds since the first stage of the pandemic, but not at the local level. In the case of Puerto Rico, there is a 58% child poverty rate,” she said.

To compound the situation, the current Nutrition Assistance Program does not cover provide for 63,900 students living in poverty and at least 34,000 have no transportation available to participate in the school cafeterias’ “Grab and Go” program, she said.

“There’s an urgency to get the program for Puerto Rico implemented. The funds are approved and available. The only thing missing is government action. Our children are facing a hunger crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we can’t wait any longer,” Enchautegui said.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.
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