Why nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico needs an overhaul


January 17, 2020

When Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, it took roughly six weeks for low-income islanders to begin receiving emergency nutrition assistance.

But when that same hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, similar emergency assistance did not begin to flow until six months after the storm’s landfall.

Why the difference?

Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) is that island’s version of SNAP, which exists in all 50 states plus some of the U.S. territories. But NAP is different – and in some ways fundamentally flawed – when compared to SNAP. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

“SNAP is an entitlement program, which means that anyone who qualifies under program rules can receive benefits. As a result, SNAP can respond quickly and effectively to support low-income families and communities during times of increased need. Enrollment expands when the economy weakens or disaster hits and contracts when the economy recovers and poverty declines, without additional action from Congress or the President. In this way, SNAP helps families bridge temporary periods of unemployment or family crisis. SNAP food benefits are funded with federal dollars, and administrative costs are shared evenly between the state and federal governments.

“NAP is a capped block grant, which means Puerto Rico receives a fixed level of annual funding for food assistance from the federal government regardless of need. As a result, NAP cannot automatically expand to meet increased need when the economy stumbles or natural disaster strikes.”

Which brings us to Puerto Rico’s latest misfortune. The morning of Jan. 7, a powerful, 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck the southern part of the island. Millions lost power; thousands are homeless, and Puerto Ricans have experienced many aftershocks, including one on Jan. 10 that measured a magnitude of 5.2. Damage is estimated at $110 million, but that figure is expected to balloon as more inspections are conducted and more aftershocks occur.

Had the earthquake happened practically anywhere else in the U.S., the SNAP program would have been flexible enough to begin distributing emergency benefits  — after all, that’s what happens after a natural disaster strikes, be it an earthquake, hurricane, floods or tornadoes, and so on.

But this is Puerto Rico and all too often, residents of the U.S. territory are treated differently.

A Puerto Rican group called the Coalition for Food Security wants to change that. It is contacting members of Congress, seeking additional funds to provide nutrition aid for those living in camps while aftershocks continue. They want to prevent another long delay in receiving federal funds for NAP.

The House Appropriations Committee has introduced an emergency relief package to respond to Puerto Rico’s earthquakes. It includes $3.35 billion to address housing, infrastructure, road repairs, and educational needs for students in schools damaged by the earthquakes. It does not at this point include nutrition help.

The struggle to provide nutrition assistance after Hurricane Maria was ultimately successful: $600 million was approved. Those funds are months away from running out, and now this new disaster, affecting a different part of the island, has increased need. Congress should act quickly to approve a comprehensive package that includes another $600 million for the NAP program as well as the important items the appropriators have proposed funding. The House is expected to vote on its bill after it returns on January 27 from a one-week recess. There is no commitment from the Senate leadership on when it will respond.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has finally this week allowed Puerto Rico to get at housing and infrastructure recovery funds intended for the hurricanes, and even this release may be stymied by additional restrictions the Trump Administration wishes to impose.

Meanwhile, suffering is spreading in Puerto Rico. Congress needs to act and the Trump Administration needs to help, not stand in the way.

nutrition assistance
Puerto Rico