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With House Passage, Senate Now Must Pass Critical Food Assistance for Puerto Rico

The House has passed a $36.5 billion aid package that includes critical funding for additional food assistance for needy households affected by hurricanes, including in Puerto Rico. Given reports of food shortages and other hardship on the island, the Senate should now move swiftly to pass legislation that includes this disaster food assistance.

Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) is a capped block grant that lacks the special disaster authority that allows the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to temporarily expand in other states and territories during presidentially declared disasters. While NAP operates similarly to SNAP during non-disaster times, capped annual funding effectively imposes NAP income limits and benefit levels that are well below those in the SNAP program. Unlike NAP, SNAP is available to any household that qualifies under the program’s rules. Therefore, also unlike SNAP, NAP is ill-equipped to respond to spikes in need that a natural disaster causes.

The House bill would let the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approve a plan for Puerto Rico to set up a disaster nutrition assistance program and let the Commonwealth define the details in consultation with USDA. To support disaster food assistance activities, the bill gives Puerto Rico access to up to $1.27 billion from the SNAP contingency reserve, a pot of funds that’s not typically available to the Commonwealth. It’s crucial that the Senate act quickly on its own disaster package — and include the same proposal.

This disaster program will be a critical step to ease access to food for Puerto Rican residents in the near term. Over the longer term, Congress and USDA will need to continue to work with the Commonwealth to assess need and explore options to more robustly support food assistance on the island.