As Tuition Spikes, Students at the University of Puerto Rico Volunteer for Meals


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Adriana Cabán Rosario, 20, serves food at the University Social Dining Hall, a community organization at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. The organization offers a meal in exchange for volunteer work or donations of food or money. Cabán Rosario has been volunteering at the dining hall since 2017 for four meals a week. Ishbel Cora Rodríguez, GPJ Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico

University tuition in Puerto Rico has risen so high that it’s hard for students to balance the cost of courses with the costs of books, facilities and even meals. Many are now volunteering with community kitchens and dining halls to feed themselves.

RÍO PIEDRAS, PUERTO RICO — Adriana Cabán Rosario, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, wakes up at 5 a.m. to make the drive from her family’s home in Carolina to the campus in Río Piedras, located on the northeastern part of the island.

Her quantitative methods class lets out at 9:50 a.m. Her next stop after is the University Social Dining Hall, a donation and volunteer-based food program where she sets up tables, serves food, washes plates and takes out the trash.

Four hours of volunteer work at the dining hall earns her four lunch meals a week.

Cabán Rosario, who studies Business Administration at the public university, says before she started volunteering at the dining hall, she had to choose between buying books or eating.

“Without the help of the dining hall, the money I use for college I would have to use for food,” she says.

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Cabán Rosario takes food orders from students at the Rebel Kitchen, another low-cost cafeteria in Río Piedras. She works approximately four hours a week in the Rebel Kitchen, which prepares the food served at the University Social Dining Hall.

Ishbel Cora Rodríguez, GPJ Puerto Rico

The annual cost of classes doubled shortly before the fall semester started in August 2018. It rose again this year, based on a recommendation made by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, a board established by the U.S. federal government to restructure Puerto Rico’s finances – including a debt burden of more than 70 billion dollars.

The debt itself has been a long-contested issue on and off the island. Human rights researchers and legal scholars from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico and Caribbean Institute for Human Rights argued in a 2016 study that the debt, often attributed to financial mismanagement alone, can be traced back to U.S. tax policies that removed incentives to establish businesses on the island and stunted economic growth.

In the midst of budget cuts to sectors like health and security, students at the University of Puerto Rico watched the cost of their classes jump from $57 per credit to $124 for the 2019-2020 school year. And according to University of Puerto Rico fiscal plans, those costs are only expected to rise. By 2023, it will cost students like Cabán Rosario $157 per credit to enroll in undergraduate classes at any of the 11 campuses across the island. And most students enroll in 15 credit hours a semester.

Cabán Rosario relies on a U.S. federal grant known as a Pell Grant to cover the cost of her degree. The grant is selective, awarded only to U.S. citizens who prove exceptional financial need. But Cabán Rosario says that the grant she received last semester, which totaled $2,500, did not cover the cost of her classes and the required facilities and technologies fees.

So she started cutting costs in other areas – including food, which carries a notoriously high price tag on the island. A U.S. policy known as the Jones Act is responsible for that; it stipulates that everything imported and exported between U.S. ports, including Puerto Rico, be transported on U.S. ships by a primarily U.S. crew.

Based on a recent survey by Advantage Business Consulting, with the Jones Act in place, it costs $3,027 on average to ship food products in containers to Puerto Rico by U.S. vessel. A similar international shipment would cost $1,206.

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Cindy Santiago (left) and Paola Ortiz Castro (right), talk on the grounds of the University Social Dining Hall in Río Piedras. Santiago began visiting for meals during her first year at the university. Ortiz Castro began working as a volunteer in 2017 – she says she didn’t have the money to afford food.

Ishbel Cora Rodríguez, GPJ Puerto Rico

Belkis Moya, founder of the Inn of Love, a community project that offers free dinner to students with limited financial resources, says she serves about 100 students a day. She says students who are facing financial challenges deserve the free meal.

“They have to get scholarships and loans in order to study,” she says. “And then they have to live their whole life paying those loans.”

In 2017, the University Social Dining Hall served about 70 lunches per day. Today, that number has nearly doubled to 120, an increase of 71%, says Paola Aponte Cotto, who coordinates the Rebel Kitchen where meals of rice, chicken, pasta and vegetables are prepared and served in the dining hall.

“More and more students are going hungry,” Aponte Cotto says.

Both the University Social Dining Hall and the Rebel Kitchen are projects of the Center for Political, Educational and Cultural Development, an activist-based nonprofit in Puerto Rico. Sales from the Rebel Kitchen support the nonprofit’s Social Canteens of Puerto Rico, including the University Social Dining Hall at the Río Piedras campus.

“The birth of the dining hall came out of the fact that we are mostly students, or alumni, and that most of us experience a lack of access to quality food,” Aponte Cotto says.

Although the suggested donation is $5 per meal at the University Social Dining Hall, the average donation is $1.80, with many students volunteering their time in exchange for a free meal.

“It’s clear that people don’t have money to eat,” says Paola Ortiz Castro, a volunteer at the dining hall. Castro began working as a volunteer in 2017, when she says she began struggling to afford the cost of food on campus.

A graduate student who requested to remain anonymous says before learning of the Inn of Love, she often skipped meals. But now, she doesn’t worry as much.

“Since [it] is there, I know, that even if I don’t eat lunch, I’ll have dinner,” she says.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is a self-governed, unincorporated territory of the United States, which means that the United States maintains control of Puerto Rico but people in Puerto Rico elect their own Governor and Assembly.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship and are permitted to move freely between the United States and Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States maintain the right to vote for U.S. president. However, Puerto Ricans who live on the island of Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote for U.S. president.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is home to 3.2 million people. But the number of people residing in Puerto Rico has dropped significantly since 2004. Puerto Rico saw the most significant population drop in the months and years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. 5.6 million people who live in the United States claim Puerto Rican origin. About a third of those people were born in Puerto Rico.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a $73 billion debt to the United States. But as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is unable to file for bankruptcy like a U.S. state. In 2016, President Barack Obama and Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan and address Puerto Rico’s debt to the United States. Seven members, appointed by the U.S. president, sit on the PROMESA board. The Governor of Puerto Rico appoints one ex officio member.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

The complex financial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico dates back to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires that all goods be shipped to Puerto Rico by a primarily U.S. crew on a U.S. vessel. Based on a 2018 survey by Advantage Business Consulting, the Jones Act greatly increases costs of everyday items for Puerto Ricans, including food. Shipping containers to Puerto Rico costs $3,027 compared to a similar international shipment, not subject to the Jones Act, which would cost $1,206 for the same distance.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican politics is dominated by the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. The Popular Democratic Party supports Puerto Rico’s current status, while the New Progressive Party hopes to make Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state. A small third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, strives to make Puerto Rico an independent country.

Photo by Gabriela Ortiz Díaz, GPJ Puerto Rico

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