Congress has passed three bills providing economic relief to individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19. The first bill is known as the Families First Act. One provision of the act, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), is intended to provide additional food resources for children who usually get free meals at school. Since this is defined as an addition to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Puerto Rico is not included in the federal SNAP program, receiving instead a limited funding allotment, Puerto Rico is not receiving these funds.
SNAP and NAP
SNAP, commonly called food stamps, is available to needy people living in the 50 States, as well as Guam and the US Virgin Islands. NAP, or Nutrition Assistance Program, is the comparable program in Puerto Rico.
Like Medicaid, NAP differs from the comparable program in the States in that it is a block grant, including a predetermined amount of money regardless of the actual needs of the territory. In the States, entitlements of this kind are federally funded according to the amount actually spent by the Site. In Puerto Rico, these funds are capped. Increased need as the result of a disaster does not increase the amount of funding the territory receives.
Puerto Rico normally has to set eligibility and benefits criteria to fit the funding. This means that families in Puerto Rico normally receive less from NAP than they would from SNAP if they lived in a state and had the same income.
Under the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, states can set new eligibility and benefits standards allowing children who would usually get free or reduced cost meals at school to access additional food while the schools are out of session. Some of these children are not eligible for food stamps, but their families can receive extra nutrition assistance through P-EBT.
States can choose to provide free breakfast and lunches through their usual free school meal programs, and will be reimbursed up to $3.50 per lunch, or up to $5.63 in Alaska. Guam, USVI, and Hawaii will receive $4.09 per lunch.
In a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Governor Vazquez wrote, “Puerto Rico is not eligible for the financing provided by P-EBT despite the fact that 100% of the student population of our educational system, in addition to a percentage of our students in non-public schools, are eligible to receive free meals from the school breakfast program and school lunch program.”
The school food service controversy
Puerto Rico’s school cafeteria workers are being paid, but the cafeterias themselves have been closed. The government has been sending food to food pantries and other charities to provide to families, but activists have claimed that this food is not reaching the children who rely on school lunches.
After some public controversy on the subject, the government pointed out that 64% of the cafeteria workers are elderly, and that more than 30 of the workers have tested positive for coronavirus. In spite of these announcements, some cafeterias were reopened, serving one rather than two meals a day.
A group of “mothers and nonprofits” filed suit against the Department of Education, and a judge has agreed to hear the case.
The governor’s letter requesting P-EBT coverage for Puerto Rico has not yet spurred a federal response. However, several members of Congress have asked that Puerto Rico be treated equally with the States during the pandemic.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has also spoken out in favor of extending P-EBT to Puerto Rico. “Due to a technical issue, Families First inadvertently left Puerto Rico out of P-EBT and its funding,” they posted at their blog. “Federal policymakers need to include Puerto Rico in P-EBT and also to provide more NAP funding to cover rising costs due to the pandemic.”