Velazquez and Bishop Speak up for Puerto Rico’s Nutritional Needs

On September 20, Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue urging the Department to “follow Congressional intent” and begin a study on the impact of supplemental disaster Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP) funding on food insecurity in Puerto Rico as mandated in federal law enacted in June.

“The island continues to suffer from the aftermath of that storm,” Velazquez explains in the letter. “Poverty levels have risen dramatically, and the economy is stagnant.  As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of families and individuals who would be eligible for the Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP), if the block grant funding in Puerto Rico was not arbitrarily capped.  According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey,  over 43 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line compared to a national average of 14 percent.  As a result, the block grant funding made available through NAP is simply incapable of meeting the needs of Puerto Ricans, particularly given the current circumstances resulting from the disaster.”

SNAP or NAP?

Puerto Rico participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps just as the 50 states did from 1974 to 1982. At that time, Congress removed Puerto Rico from SNAP and instead established the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) with a block grant.

The object of the change was to reduce costs. This goal was met. A three-person household in the States must have a net income (income after deductions) of no more than $1,680 to receive SNAP assistance, but the same household in Puerto Rico could not have a net income of more than $599 to receive benefits. This difference in eligibility keeps costs down, even though the current poverty level in Puerto Rico is about 43%.

Also, since the funds for NAP are capped, the program cannot expand in times of greater need. In a State, SNAP is funded according to the number of people who need the assistance. In Puerto Rico, federal funding ends when the cap is met, regardless of the needs. Following Hurricane Maria, families in Puerto Rico experienced greater food insecurity, but NAP did not increase funding levels. Congress provided additional disaster aid, but this did not solve the ongoing problems with NAP.

A number of leaders in Puerto Rico and in Washington support returning Puerto Rico to the SNAP program, which would better meet the needs of the territory.

“Excessive” funding?

Earlier this year, the White House suggested that Puerto Rico was receiving “excessive” funding and was not in need of additional nutrition assistance. At that time, Velazquez asked for a study of the needs and resources of nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico. Her letter renews the request.

“The study would also evaluate readiness for inclusion into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” Velazquez said in a press release. “In the 1980’s Puerto Rico was removed from SNAP and instead given a block grant for food assistance. This has resulted in less funding and fewer benefits for Puerto Ricans – 85 percent of whom are food insecure.”

Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico imported the majority of the food eaten on the Island. The hurricane destroyed crops and caused farms to fold.

The appropriation for the study was part of a disaster relief bill passed in June of 2019, which provided for $5 million for the United Stated Department of Agriculture “to conduct an independent study, including a survey of participants” to compare the impact of disaster relief nutritional assistance “to the food insecurity, health status, and well-being of low-income residents in Puerto Rico without such additional benefits.”

Appropriations Subcommittee hearing

The House Agriculture and Rural Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing last week entitled, “Food and Nutrition Service: Policy and Program Overview”

Subcommittee Chair Sanford Bishop (D-GA) asked witness Brandon Lipps, Deputy Under Secretary of the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, about Puerto Rico’s food insecurity issues.

“In 2017, in wake of Hurricane Maria, Congress made available an additional $1.27 billion in supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program funding for Puerto Rico. Then in June, Congress provided another $600 million. Unlike states, Puerto Rico is uniquely dependent on Congress with funds in the event of an emergency or natural disaster,” he said. “Even with these additional benefits, Puerto Rican households barely managed to receive comparable benefits as compared to the households in the 50 states. Given that fact the continued recovery from Hurricane Maria and the high level of poverty in Puerto Rico, what are your specific recommendations for reducing food insecurity in Puerto Rico?”

Lipps responded, “We do everything that we can to help them within the confines of what Congress has provided for them.”

He confirmed that Puerto Rico is not covered under SNAP, and detailed what Food, Nutrition, and Consumer services has been able to provide for the territory, saying, “We have five staff permanently on the ground in Puerto Rico who work with them on regular occasion and we provide a lot of technical assistance and advice in carrying out the NAP program which Congress has funded for them.”

While the answer stopped short of including any recommendations for reducing food insecurity, the concern expressed by Representatives Bishop and Velazquez shows that some Members of Congress continue to be aware of the needs of Puerto Rico as the territory continues to work to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and the long-term effects of an ongoing financial crisis.

Read the Velazquez letter.

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