In 2020, during the COVID epidemic, a survey from George Washington University found that 40% of Puerto Rico’s population was food insecure, meaning that they were not certain from day to day whether they would have enough to eat.
Midway into 2023, as Congress considers the renewal of the nation’s most comprehensive nutrition assistance law, the issue of food security in Puerto Rico remains as salient as ever.
Efforts to enhance food security for Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable residents face a significant hurdle in the current Congress: finding federal funds to pay for the expansion. Complicating matters is a competing proposal from a Chicago-based entity, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, that seeks to cut federal funding for Puerto Rico’s food insecure in half and divert those resources to local farmers.
The Farm Bill
On September 30, federal policies enacted in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the “farm bill”) will expire. The farm bill is a multiyear law that guides a wide range of agricultural programs, including the nation’s most dominant food security program – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Puerto Rico is not included in SNAP, a fact that lies at the root of its food insecurity problem. In lieu of SNAP, Puerto Rico receives substantially less assistance through its Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) – a capped amount of U.S. funding that does not include worker training, a mechanism to automatically increase disaster assistance during times of need, or other support received by the 50 states, D.C., Guam, and United States Virgin Islands. These benefits are part of SNAP.
The farm bill reauthorization provides an opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively address agricultural and food issues, and one issue on the agenda is the possible transition of Puerto Rico’s capped funding under NAP to SNAP.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi (D) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon (R) are advocating for Puerto Rico’s inclusion in SNAP in the farm bill. Resident Commissioner Gonzalez Colon has also introduced separate legislation to transform Puerto Rico’s limited grant program to be included in SNAP.
Puerto Rico’s History in the Federal Nutrition Program
Until 1982, Puerto Rico participated in SNAP’s predecessor program, generally referred to as “food stamps” in recognition of the paper tokens beneficiaries once received. In 1982, Congress and President Reagan replaced Puerto Rico’s food stamp program with a limited annual grant that became NAP. As part of the transition, funding was cut substantially.
A barrier to Puerto Rico’s reinstatement in the federal nutrition program is the cost of expansion. The Supreme Court has ruled several times that Congress does not have to treat Puerto Rico equally with states in federal programs. NAP is one of several federal programs in which Puerto Rico’s resources are less than in the fifty states.
Advocates of nutrition assistance expansion in Puerto Rico face an uphill battle. The current fiscal climate on Capitol Hill is not at all conducive to increases in federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, whether in Puerto Rico or anywhere else. Concerns over federal spending are dominating farm bill discussions.
Controversy in Chicago
As Puerto Rico’s leaders fight for increased nutrition assistance for the most vulnerable in the midst of a broad battle for funding, they face an additional challenge. In April, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which is based in Chicago, wrote a letter to Congressional leaders urging “the immediate retooling of Puerto Rico’s Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP) so that at least half of the funds allocated to this program can be redirected to support the island’s local farmers and promote greater agricultural self-sufficiency.”
Under the label of Puerto Rico food sovereignty, the Chicago-based entity reiterated in its letter that Congress should allow “half of the funding that is appropriated to the island for food assistance to be strictly devoted to local farms and community agricultural programs.” This payment structure would be impossible under SNAP.
Food sovereignty is a nationwide issue. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) seeks “to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system.” The group awarded its 2018 Food Sovereignty Prize to a Puerto Rican entity, Organización Boricuá, which teaches agroecology to children through a school agriculture and environment program.
The USDA recognizes the importance of Puerto Rico having the capacity to produce its own agricultural products, which lies at the heart of the food sovereignty movement. USDA offers direct support for small and mid-sized farmers, including those in Puerto Rico, and has a special office for Puerto Rico through its Farm Service Agency (FSA). According to its website, the FSA’s mission “is to help Puerto Rico farmers and ranchers secure the highest possible financial assistance from USDA programs through accurate, timely and efficient program delivery.”
Under the Chicago group’s proposal, food sovereignty in Puerto Rico would depend on U.S. funding, which would be redirected away from needy families who currently receive nutrition assistance. The plan has not been endorsed by Puerto Rico’s governor, the Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture or the Resident Commissioner, who continue to fight for legislation to expand benefits for recipients by transitioning Puerto Rico’s NAP program to be part of SNAP.
Last week, Sergio Marxuach, the Director of Public Policy at the Center for a New Economy slammed the proposal, saying that it creates confusion and would “end up decimating” aid to the poor.
“There are other federal programs to support farmers and agriculture,” Marxuach explained. “It is not necessary to decimate the little help that families who participate in the nutrition assistance program receive to subsidize farmers. They are creating an unnecessary conflict between two groups that need support and help,” he stated.
Since the plan was first floated in April, it has garnered support in Puerto Rico from a few mayors, a dean at the University of Puerto Rico College of Agricultural Sciences in Mayaguez, and the Sustainable Agriculture Community Land Trust. Puerto Rican farmers and related local agriculture organizations have remained silent.
The proposal has not been endorsed by faith-based organizations based in Puerto Rico or nationwide, which are instead focused on including Puerto Rico in SNAP. Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy organization that works with the Puerto Rican faith community and whose mission involves “call[ing] on the leadership of people and leaders who are directly impacted by food insecurity and hunger” released a statement on June 22 that does not mention food sovereignty for Puerto Rico as a goal for the farm bill.
The statement by the non-profit instead explains, “[i]ncluding access to SNAP for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico in the upcoming farm bill reauthorization process will move us toward more nutritious, sustainable, and equitable food systems.”