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Congressional Subcommittee Finds Problems with Unequal Treatment of Puerto Rico in U.S. Nutrition Programs

Disadvantages of Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the federal nutrition program were on display last week as the U.S. House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee heard testimony from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Inspector General.

“Puerto Rico does not have the legislative authority to operate a disaster nutrition assistance program,” Phyllis K. Fong, USDA Inspector General, explained in her written testimony.

This disparate treatment handicapped Puerto Rico in efforts to provide nutritional assistance following Hurricane Maria.

“Since Puerto Rico was unable to operate a disaster NAP [Nutrition Assistance Program], FNS [the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service] and ADSEF [Puerto Rico’s Administration for Socioeconomic Development of the Family] were unable to adequately plan before the hurricanes,” stated Fong.

States, the District of Columbia (D.C.), and some U.S. territories (Guam and the United States Virgin Islands (USVI)) are part of the federal Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has its own more limited program, the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP).

One difference between the two programs is that the state-based program includes an automatic disaster relief benefit that kicks in for states during times of need but Puerto Rico’s program does not.  This limitation is consistent with the two programs’ overall structures, in which NAP has a funding cap but SNAP does not.

Both programs include specific eligibility criteria and benefit levels, but SNAP fully serves all applicants who qualify while NAP’s more limited funding forces the program to set different eligibility and benefit levels to stay within its budget.  Even during normal times, this means that NAP cannot serve all residents  who would be eligible in SNAP or provide the same level of benefits.

“We also found that neither FNS nor ADSEF effectively coordinated with other agencies to quickly distribute the disaster grant funding to hurricane survivors. Finally, we found that ADSEF’s eligibility system did not always accurately determine benefits for households.”

“The basic question [is] what is the most effective way to deliver nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico?” said Fong in the hearing. “The department is wrestling with it and I think they’re making progress.”

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) pointed out that differences in nutrition assistance programs in Puerto Rico from those in the states has an impact. “When we have major disasters,” he said, “it appears that they end up being delayed unnecessarily in getting the results that they need to help their people.”

Bishop asked whether there was any way to “equalize the response time in the delivery of the services.”

Gil H. Harden, the Assistant Inspector General for Audit of the Office of Inspector General, agreed that they also had “concerns with delays.” He assured Rep. Bishop that his office was trying to come up with recommendations.

There are also differences between NAP and SNAP with respect to administration and oversight.  For example, Puerto Rico must implement some of the functions that the federal government carries out for the states in SNAP despite its limited budget, such as certifying retailers.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) expressed concern that there has been a disproportionate amount of attention paid to Puerto Rico relative to lax oversight of the Trump administration’s $28 billion trade assistance package for farmers.

“That bailout is over 20 times more than the $1.27 billion in basic food assistance that we appropriated to Puerto Rico, yet it has received far less scrutiny,” she remarked. “Why is that?”

Fong responded that her office was aware of the issues Rep. DeLauro mentioned. DeLauro persisted, “You had all of 2018 and 2019 and you all can’t investigate waste and fraud in a $28 billion program, but boy did you go after… $1.27 billion in basic food aid to Puerto Rico.”

A few days after the Agriculture Subcommittee hearing, the U.S. Government Accountability Office announced that it has opened a review of President Trump’s $28 billion bailout for farmers harmed by his trade policies amid allegations of that the funding has mismanaged and improperly allocated.

Watch the full hearing.

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