In September, eight U.S. senators, led by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D), wrote to Secretary Purdue of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requesting “much needed food aid” for Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the availability of food remains a problem in the United States’ most populous territory of roughly 3.4 million people.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) implemented a plan to distribute food from September 26th to October 27th in response to Hurricane Maria. Each household served by this program received 9-16 pounds of food.
Now, two months after the hurricane struck, the Island is still in crisis mode. Complete blackouts have increased the problems caused by lack of electricity — which include difficulty in storing food. Fewer than half of the residents of Puerto Rico have electricity, and blackouts affects supermarkets as well as residences. Spoiled food is unavoidable with flooding and loss of electricity.
Many people are still homeless. More than 20% are without drinkable (cooking) water as of this writing. One local blogger has expressed frustration because without electricity he cannot cook at home and must come up with funds to eat in restaurants. The additional cost of prepared food comes at a time when many people are still out of work, waiting for their employers to reopen. The need for ready-to-eat food continues.
Unfortunately, provision of food does not.
The fifty states qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called “food stamps” based on the federal nutrition program that preceded SNAP. Instead of SNAP, Puerto Rico has a block grant called the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP). This is a capped grant, which can’t increase in response to disasters. Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) is a program specifically to provide food for people in disaster situations. Puerto Rico is not eligible for this program.
The senators’ letter asked the USDA for a list of actions:
- Access to D-SNAP funds under Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP).
- Distribution of any remaining USDA foods in Puerto Rico, and replacement of any of these foods that have been damaged.
- Establishment of emergency feeding centers where they are needed.
- Provision of food for babies and toddlers, and coordination with FEMA to get these resources to the people who need them.
- Reinitiation of the household food deliveries which ended last month.
- Flexibility for the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). The USDA has already relaxed some requirements, in recognition of the fact that WIC-mandated foods may not be available, but the letter is asking for more leeway. For example, the USDA is allowing parents to buy mixed-vegetable baby food if single-vegetable items cannot be found, but they cannot buy whatever baby food is in a store.
- Replacement of WIC foods which have been destroyed.
- Flexibility for school lunch programs, which again may not have access to the planned foods.
Other signers include Democratic Senators Charles Schumer (NY), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Robert Menendez (NJ), Christopher Murphy (CT), Cory Booker (NJ), Richard Durbin (IL), and Tammy Duckworth (IL).