Food Security for Puerto Rico Now

Food Security for Puerto Rico Now

Published on May 8, 2024 / Leer en español

Sergio portrait
Policy Director

Federal nutrition assistance for residents of Puerto Rico began in November 1974 under the old Food Stamp Program (“FSP”). Initially and during the first eight years of the implementation of the FSP in Puerto Rico it functioned just like in the United States: all eligible participants received coupons to purchase food items on the island.

In 1982, though, Congress arbitrarily replaced the FSP in Puerto Rico with an annual block grant through the Nutrition Assistance Program (“NAP”). The annual block grant was initially capped at $825 million or 75% of the projected FSP funding need for Puerto Rico in 1982. This cap was kept in place for the first five years of the program.

During FY2021, core block grant funding for the NAP was approximately $2 billion and provided benefits to 1.5 million low-income individuals. This core funding was supplemented with special one-time appropriations in 2017, after Hurricane María, and in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Puerto Rico’s block grant is $2.9 billion due to recent federal increases in the Thrifty Food Plan, which also determines nutrition benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”). The USDA estimates that if Puerto Rico were currently under SNAP, it would receive at least an additional $1 billion in nutrition assistance.

While the recent increase in the annual amount allocated to Puerto Rico was sorely needed and greatly appreciated, the NAP’s capped block grant structure still results in stricter eligibility requirements and lower maximum monthly benefits when compared to the SNAP. According to a 2022 Feasibility Study commissioned by the Food and Nutrition Service (the “Feasibility Study”), while the NAP asset limits are higher than the SNAP asset limits, the result is the implementation of drastically lower net income limits and benefit levels in Puerto Rico. For example, to receive benefits today a single-person household in Puerto Rico must have a monthly net income below $691 compared with $1,251 under the SNAP in the states. The maximum benefit level for the same size household is $183 in Puerto Rico compared to $291 in the States.

Furthermore, the current NAP block grant is not needs-based, does not allow for access to emergency benefits after natural disasters (D-SNAP), and precludes Puerto Rico from accessing other programs and initiatives available to the states, D.C., Guam, and USVI through the SNAP. These disparities place families living in Puerto Rico in an unacceptable and indefensible situation.

Puerto Rico definitely needs additional nutrition funds but consideration of just another increase in NAP funding, without providing for a systematic transition to the SNAP, would be insufficient and continue to subject island residents to funding gaps, food insecurity, and second-class citizenship status. It is not the long-term solution to which Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, have a right through this Farm Bill.

The Feasibility Study claims the NAP was created “in part to control nutrition assistance costs in Puerto Rico”, but we disagree. There is no rational relationship between the general desire or necessity to cut the costs of any given federal program and the decision to cut only those benefits accruing to a particular group of persons. In this sense, the decision to implement the NAP in Puerto Rico as a capped block grant is yet another example in a long history of Congressional discrimination against territories based on a “racialized order of territorial exceptionalism”, as documented by Professor Andrew Hammond from the University of Florida law school.

While current members of Congress are not to blame for the inequities visited on Puerto Rico over the last forty-odd years due to the discriminatory and unfair provisions of the NAP, they are both legally and morally responsible to amend and correct them and have an obvious opportunity to do so now.

There are currently two bills pending before Congress to rectify the discriminatory and unequal treatment of Puerto Rico under the NAP. Both H.R. 253 and S. 949 set out a timeline and process for Puerto Rico’s transition from the NAP into the SNAP, which would address systemic flaws in the NAP block grant funding. A broad coalition of over 80 organizations representing private industry, respected national non-profits, academic think tanks, and religious organizations has been strongly advocating for the inclusion of the language set forth in H.R. 253/S. 949 in the text of the Farm Bill currently being drafted.

As members of Congress consider the text of the Farm Bill, we remind them of Matthew Croasmun and Miroslav Volf’s beautiful words in The Hunger for Home: Food and Meals in the Gospel of Luke: “A loaf of bread is the most ordinary and most miraculous of things…It results from and sustains a set of relations between God, peoples, and the whole of creation. All three are made at home with one another in bread that is not just bread.” Simply put, food is not merely food and bread is never just bread. They are also physical representations of a transcendent relationship. Unfortunately, under the NAP, low-income Puerto Ricans are unable to fully participate in this physically and spiritually nourishing meal.

Congress should not make U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico wait to receive a fair portion of their daily bread until the next Farm Bill deliberations in 2028. The time for Congress to discharge its legal and moral obligations to Puerto Rico is now.