Some media have reported — incorrectly — that the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) denied Puerto Rico’s request to let recipients of the territory’s main food assistance program use their benefits to buy hot, ready-to-eat foods, which program rules don’t typically allow. We’d like to correct the record.
On September 30, USDA issued a letter enabling Puerto Rico to implement several measures to ease access to food for those Puerto Ricans who are most in need after Hurricane Maria. USDA approved Puerto Rico’s request to let participants in the territory’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) use their nutrition benefits to buy hot foods at authorized retailers through the end of November. USDA commonly grants this flexibility after natural disasters and recently approved similar requests from Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Instead of participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), Puerto Rico receives a block grant each year for food assistance for low-income Puerto Ricans. Unlike SNAP beneficiaries elsewhere in the United States, NAP participants receive 20 percent of their benefits in a form that’s redeemable as cash. Along with the flexibility on food benefits described above, USDA also authorized Puerto Rico to allow participants to use the cash portion of their benefit for food at any retail outlet through November. The agency also approved replacement benefits for NAP participants who lost food as a result of the disaster.
In the coming months, Puerto Rico will need lots of support to rebuild. In the near term, meeting basic needs — including abating hunger — is paramount. As in other hurricane-affected regions, USDA has taken a first step to give Puerto Rico flexibilities to help ease the burden. We encourage USDA and Congress to work with the territory to explore other opportunities to mitigate the hardships of Puerto Ricans due to the hurricane.