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Puerto Rico Needs More Food Aid to Better Respond to COVID-19

With millions of Americans struggling to meet their basic food needs in light of COVID-19, states are using new options to support households through SNAP (food stamps) and school meal replacement programs. But Puerto Rico — which was already at a relative disadvantage when the pandemic began — can’t use the same new tools and options. More federal funding for nutrition assistance and access to the same options would help the Commonwealth respond to rising need due to COVID-19 and the deep economic downturn.

School meals replacement. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March created and funded several nutrition provisions that included a temporary program, Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), which lets states participating in SNAP issue benefits on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to school-aged children who are missing free and reduced-price meals due to school closures. Participating states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands can submit a plan to issue supplemental benefits automatically to households with eligible children that receive SNAP. They can also identify families with eligible children that aren’t receiving SNAP and issue them an EBT card to provide the P-EBT benefits.

Due to a technical issue, Families First inadvertently left Puerto Rico out of P-EBT and its funding. As a result, close to 300,000 children in Puerto Rico’s public schools (which provide free meals to all students as part of the federal school meals programs because of Puerto Rico’s high poverty) are missing out on school meals and can’t access the P-EBT benefits that states can provide to help families cover those costs.

Puerto Rico’s children shouldn’t be denied a school meal replacement program; the Commonwealth runs the federal child nutrition programs like any state and provides food assistance on EBT cards similar to the way states do for SNAP. P-EBT and its funding would significantly help Puerto Rico families that are struggling due to the economic crisis and are now paying for meals that their children usually get in school. Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, recently wrote to Congress expressing support for this proposal, echoing calls from the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico and charitable and other nonprofit organizations.

Nutrition assistance. Puerto Rico also needs additional federal funding to meet the higher need for its limited household food assistance program. Even in ordinary times, Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) doesn’t meet the Commonwealth’s basic food needs. That’s because unlike SNAP, which has a flexible budget that can expand to provide benefits based on estimated need to everyone who’s eligible for them, NAP is a block grant under which Puerto Rico gets a capped amount each year to provide benefits to very poor households and must distribute benefits based on funding rather than need. Puerto Rico has received roughly $295 million in supplemental nutrition assistance funding, but the Commonwealth will need significantly more to cover rising costs as residents have lost jobs and income.

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. A food assistance boost is one of several steps that would enable Puerto Rico, which has long been in recession, to fight the pandemic’s effects and put the Commonwealth on the path to economic recovery.