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Nutrition Assistance in Puerto Rico on the Brink

Puerto Rico was initially included in the U.S. Food Stamp program, but in the 1980s — as part of a general cutback — Puerto Rico was cut out of the federal program and placed instead in the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), a block grant that caps resources at a flat amount regardless of need.

While states receive funds under a federal formula, Puerto Rico has a limited amount of resources to distribute. This makes it more difficult for Puerto Rico to respond to disasters and other circumstances that increase need. Puerto Rico also has income requirements and benefit packages lower than those of States so that it can operate under its capped funding level.

This month, since additional funds appropriated for the program were not released, Puerto Rico has had to reduce the amount paid to current recipients. The typical family of four will receive $410 per month, while families of the same size in the States receive $640 per month. The cost of food is not lower in Puerto Rico.

Even before the hurricanes hit, Puerto Rico imported about 85% of its food. Before the hurricane, residents of Puerto Rico were four times more likely to face food insecurity than those living in the states. Now, according to Bread for the World, nearly all families in Puerto Rico face food insecurity.

Disaster Relief Pending

A disaster relief bill was passed by the House of Representatives in January that included $600 million in nutrition aid for Puerto Rico. This would have given poor families on the Island the same amounts received in the States until September. The White House objected to the Puerto Rico funding.

In the Senate, Senators David Perdue (R-GA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) introduced a disaster relief bill to respond to the damage of Hurricane Michael.  This proposal includes additional funding for nutritional assistance in Puerto Rico.  The legislation, however, has stagnated in the Senate, and Roll Call has reported that “Puerto Rico remains a key sticking point” on the Perdue bill.

As a State, Puerto Rico would have two senators and five representatives in the House. As a territory, Puerto Rico has to rely on legislators from the States. The continued lack of representation for Puerto Rico means that Puerto Rico must compete for disaster relief funding with States but also depend on them to advance Puerto Rico’s isolated interests as part of their larger initiatives.

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