As Congress considers the reauthorization of federal nutrition assistance in the context of the Farm Bill, the perennial issue of Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is once again on the agenda, this time with more promising prospects for inclusion based on the strength of Congressional champions and grassroots support.
Puerto Rico had been included in the federal nutrition program until 1982, when budget pressures and Puerto Rico’s lack of a voice in Congress relegated the U.S. territory to be dropped from the federal program and instead receive a capped amount of funding unrelated to the needs of the people of Puerto Rico in the form of it Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) block grant. Congress considered reintegrating Puerto Rico back into the federal nutrition assistance program during the 2018 renewal of the Farm Bill, but, at the time, a transition was deemed premature. Instead, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was tasked in the bill with conducting a review of changes needed to convert NAP to SNAP and develop a detailed implementation plan for establishing SNAP in Puerto Rico.
USDA’s final report and related implementation plan concluded that Puerto Rico is capable of transitioning back into the federal system, moving from NAP to SNAP, provided that it is given the time and resources to do so.
The Need for Change
The need for Puerto Rico’s reintegration back into the federal system is real. Recent estimates peg food insecurity at 40% in Puerto Rico. One of the most important weapons against food insecurity in the United States is SNAP, commonly known as the food stamps program in recognition of the name of its predecessor program. This federal benefit provides nutritional assistance — that is, money to buy food — for families in need. In the states, the national average available for eligible household is $239.00 per month for two people, but the maximum benefit is $535. In Puerto Rico, the maximum benefit for a two-person household is $302. Eligibility shows similar inequities: in Puerto Rico, the maximum income for eligibility is $1,319 for a two-person household, while in most states it is $1,452.
47% of the population of Puerto Rico is eligible for benefits under NAP. Yet funding is limited. SNAP is paid for by states, which are then reimbursed for most of those costs by the federal government. Puerto Rico, however, receives a certain amount of funds, and when that money is gone, there are no more funds available to meet the obligations of the nutrition assistance program.
Transition from NAP to SNAP
Several leaders in Congress have proposed bringing Puerto Rico back under the auspices of the SNAP program. These proposals have led to the introduction of two laws making the change:
- Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act of 2023,(H.R. 253/S. 949 ), introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR)
- The Closing the Meal Gap Act (H.R.3037/S.1336), which is a broad nutrition assistance bill that includes a section on Puerto Rico NAP to SNAP transition. The bill was introduced by Sen. Gillibrand in the Senate and by Rep . Alma Adams (D-NC) in the House.
These bills call for Puerto Rico to be covered by SNAP rather than NAP. This would give residents of Puerto Rico coverage equal to residents of states. These bills will be considered as part of future work to enact a new U.S. Farm Bill. Their likelihood for success will depend heavily on the cost of the transition.
Support for the change
The Coalition for Food Security and Hispanic Federation wrote a letter to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. John Bookman (R-AR), the Chair and Ranking Member respectively of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Signed by almost 90 business, community and advocacy groups, the letter called for Puerto Rico’s (and other territories’) inclusion in the SNAP program.
“The recent change to the USDA Thrifty Food Plan increases the Puerto Rico nutrition grant; however, it does not create parity with the states, or with other territories like Guam or the U.S Virgin Islands. The NAP block grant is not need based and under the new TFP guidelines, Puerto Rico benefits will continue to be 25-30 percent lower than SNAP benefits provided in the fifty states. Tragically, as a block grant and unlike SNAP, Puerto Rico NAP does not automatically increase in times of great need, forcing territorial residents to wait in hunger when emergencies strike,” says the letter. “Puerto Rico already has demonstrated its ability to transition into SNAP by fully implementing an EBT system, updating technology capabilities, phasing out cash benefits, and training employees. In recent reports, USDA and FNS have positively evaluated Puerto Rico’s compliance with FNS regulations, planning requirements, and program monitoring.”
They ask the Senate committee members to support the Closing the Meal Gap Act or to include the transition to SNAP in other federal law.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities advocates for including the transition in the Farm Bill. “The funding disparities directly affect millions of American citizens and nationals across Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the CNMI, who face significant poverty and hardship,” they say. If Puerto Rico participated in SNAP, 15 percent more low-income households would be able to participate than in NAP, and 26 percent more federal funds would go toward serving eligible people and providing more robust benefits.”
The Center for a New Economy likewise supports the transmission. “Currently, NAP relies on new congressional action every time a crisis or natural disaster puts the government’s finances in check or the economic situation for Puerto Rican families worsens,” they point out. “Under SNAP, we would have a program that is flexible and responsive to the needs of communities that suffer from food insecurity.”