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Puerto Rico Needs More Food Assistance During Recovery

“Of all Puerto Rico’s continuing miseries… the most blatantly unjust is that Islanders have been denied the more generous and swifter food relief distributed to storm victims this year in Texas and Florida under the emergency food stamp program,” the New York Times editorialized recently. Since Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) operates under a block grant with capped funding, and not as part of the SNAP (formerly food stamps) entitlement that provides benefits to all eligible recipients, it lacks the funds to quickly and comprehensively respond to a disaster. Policymakers provided additional resources for Puerto Rico to develop and implement a plan to help affected families meet their immediate food needs — but they need to do more to address the island’s long-term needs.

Because the capped block grant isn’t designed to meet the food needs of all eligible people over the longer term, Puerto Rico won’t likely be able to provide enough resources to vulnerable families for basic nutrition while the island rebuilds — unlike the way SNAP will do for people in Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s the fundamental flaw of block grants like NAP: they can’t serve everyone who needs help even after a disaster.

That's why Senate Democrats and the Center for a New Economy are asking the Trump Administration and Congress to seek relief from the capped funding. Policymakers need to implement a fix in line with the requests, both of which seek to enable the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make resources available to the island if high need persists over the medium and long term.

Experts project that Puerto Rico’s recovery could take years and, with capped funding, NAP isn’t well positioned to meet the island’s food needs if it experiences more poverty or higher food prices. Access to additional funding for nutrition assistance, if and when it is needed, is critical to the health of the island’s population.