For Puerto Rico, NAP aid could happen soon – but another dark cloud looms


March 22, 2019

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of blog posts detailing Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance crisis. You can see previous posts here.

When Congress returns next week, senators are tentatively scheduled to consider a measure that could extend $600 million in emergency nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico.

For the beleaguered U.S. island, the aid could not come soon enough. After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria (which struck the island 18 months ago this week), Congress approved an additional $1.27 billion for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP; similar to SNAP/food stamps in the continental U.S.)

This additional assistance meant that Puerto Ricans were receiving roughly the same benefit that SNAP recipients in the 50 states receive.

But the additional funds ran out at the end of February. About half of the 1.35 million Puerto Ricans who receive NAP benefits began experiencing cuts earlier this month; by today – Friday, March 22 – all 1.35 million recipients will be feeling the cuts.

In a brief interview with Voices for Human Needs, the woman who oversees Puerto Rico’s NAP program said the reduction in benefits isn’t just a hardship for those who need help when it comes to feeding their families – it is also a blow to the island’s overall economy, to the tune of about $100 million a month in economic activity.

Glorimar Andujar, Secretary of the Department of Families in Puerto Rico, was asked by Voices for Human Needs what she would tell members of Congress if she could. Her response:

“I’ll ask them to be sensitive to the American citizens living on our island. We are American citizens; we are part of the nation. We need to be treated equally, with respect. I will ask them if they think that someone living under the poverty level will be able to have a good nutrition with $1.20 per meal. That is the average benefit per meal that a family of four receives here in Puerto Rico. If they plan to eradicate hunger, they cannot ignore the reality of our island. If they want economic development, they need to help with the social capital development of Puerto Rico.”

Before Congress broke for its St. Patrick’s Day recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed a motion to proceed to a disaster bill that presumably would include the $600 million extension Puerto Rico so desperately needs. But negotiations are ongoing; by the time lawmakers broke for recess, exactly what will be in the bill was still being negotiated by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate. Nonetheless, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) told Roll Call he believes an initial vote to proceed with the measure would take place on Tuesday, March 26.

Meanwhile, another dark cloud looms over Puerto Rico’s scenic horizon, one that is unrelated to nutrition assistance or Maria, but could nonetheless impede economic recovery efforts.

On Friday, March 22, the Washington Post reported that the Trump Administration plans to divert as much as $3.6 billion in military construction projects that have yet to be awarded to contractors in order to pay for Trump’s proposed wall along the southern the U.S. southern border.

The projects are spread out throughout Europe and U.S. states and territories. But of the eight U.S. states and two territories that would be affected, Puerto Rico would lose the most in construction funding – 10 projects totaling $403 million in funding. The projects that would lose funding include construction of a school for children of U.S. military personnel on what was once Ramey Air Force Base and improvements to Camp Santiago, a training facility operated by the Puerto Rico National Guard.

Ramon Luis Nieves, a former state senator who represented San Juan, told the Post it was “very sad” that Puerto Rico was being targeted, even as it continues a slow recovery from Hurricane Maria that has been hampered by what many view as an inadequate response from the Trump Administration and Congress.

Indeed, the Administration’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico have been criticized on many levels – for example, FEMA has refused to approve (and thus provide funds for) the overwhelming majority of claims, meaning homeowners and small business owners have been unable to rebuild. And now, on top of that, the Administration is targeting funds for military projects on an U.S. island that lacks full representation in Congress.

“You cannot say you’re building a wall to protect national security in the continental U.S. while taking moneys away from the people of Puerto Rico and the preparedness of our troops who train here,” he said.