While the reason for it was not immediately clear, the unexpected delay to Puerto Rico’s food stamp aid reflects the ongoing dysfunction in securing the release of federal funding for the U.S. territory that is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in fall 2017.
Emergency food stamp money for Puerto Rico ran out in March, starting widespread reductions in benefits, and funding renewal was delayed by several months amid an impasse among federal lawmakers and opposition to additional funding for Puerto Rico from the Trump administration.
Puerto Rican officials said they have unsuccessfully sought clarity from the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service for how to swiftly secure the food stamp funding.
“The situation is dire, and we are ready to submit either a plan or an amendment to an existing plan as soon as we get directions from FNS in order to speed up the disbursement of the funds,” Matos, secretary of Puerto Rico’s families department, said in a statement. “Given Puerto Rico’s unfair treatment in federal programs, we are pushing to receive and utilize the funds as soon as possible.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said the agency has been in contact with Puerto Rico’s government, but that the island must first propose a plan for how the aid will be spent and make “required system changes” to its food stamps program. The agency said Puerto Rico’s government must also follow financial management procedures that could not be implemented until after Congress appropriated the new funding.
On Monday afternoon, FNS provided an additional statement saying that they received Puerto Rico’s new and amended disaster plan earlier in the day. The statement added speedy release of the funding is a priority for the department, citing a conference call between Puerto Rico and agency officials four days after the disaster package was signed into law, as well as the fact the department has five-full time staffers in Puerto Rico.
Kevin Concannon, who served as undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services during the Obama administration, said there is no reason for officials not to be able to approve the aid much more quickly.
“It’s normally rapidly approved, because you’re trying to mitigate the impact of hunger and food insecurity,” he said. “This should be straightforward. It should not take this long. The existing program in Puerto Rico has been there for decades, and the infrastructure is used months in and months out.”
The Department of Agriculture reviews and approves states’ and territories’ plans for use of federal nutrition program funding, including Puerto Rico’s program. After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico submitted a different plan outlining how it would spend its emergency food stamps aid. Puerto Rican officials say they are not sure whether they can again submit that plan, with revisions, to the administration, or whether they will be required to write a new one for the additional aid.
“The Food and Nutrition Service has not yet informed us whether we will be asked to amend” its plan for aid, or if a new one will be requested, Matos said in a statement.
Advocates who had lobbied Congress to approve the food stamp aid said they were stunned to learn that the money had not reached island residents and could face even further delays.
“We have been working on this since March and known about it from before that. The fact that it’s taking so long to get this money for the families who need it the most is beyond frustrating and shocking. It’s outrageous,” said Héctor Cordero-Guzmán, a professor at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York who has briefed lawmakers on Puerto Rico’s food stamps issue.
The Trump administration initially opposed the additional funding as “excessive and unnecessary” in a letter to Congress before accepting it in a broader $19 billion disaster relief package. The Trump administration eventually agreed to approve the additional aid under pressure from Senate Republicans, who were seeking to pass disaster aid for other parts of the United States through the House, which is controlled by Democrats.
Puerto Rico officials have for months demanded the approval of the additional food stamps funding. The food insecurity rate in Puerto Rico is triple that of the mainland — and that was before the hurricane, according to the 2017 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nearly 45 percent of households with children younger than 18 in Puerto Rico depend on food stamps, according to the Instituto Desarollo Juventud, a nonpartisan public policy organization. The emergency food stamp aid allowed Puerto Rico to bring its food stamp benefits roughly in line with those received by mainland U.S. states, but the cuts forced a reduction of about 25 percent for the food stamp benefit, reductions that were in some cases closer to 50 percent.
“It’s going to be devastating,” said Lourdes Santaballa, a community activist and executive director of ASI, a nonprofit focused on childhood health, of the ongoing delay.
Santaballa, a food-stamp recipient from Dorado, Puerto Rico, receives about $200 every month in benefits that help her keep her family of three fed. Families like hers struggle to make grocery runs last 30 days with rising food prices and a sputtering island economy that yields few non-minimum wage jobs and opportunities.
Veronica Burgos, 29, purchases the basics on her food runs to Walmart and local grocers with $160. Milk, water, cereal and bread are the substance of the meals she prepares for her 7-year-old daughter. She has invented all kind of dishes to augment plain white rice dinners. Sometimes, she fries an egg to place on top or dresses up a pack of frozen vegetables with meat seasoning and cooks it all together to make the rice taste like protein.
“That happens about twice a month because the meat is expensive,” the Canovanas, Puerto Rico, woman said. “It’s how we survive.”
Valeria Santa is a full-time college student raising a toddler with $200 a month in nutritional assistance. She has watched her food stamp benefits reduced time and time again as the price of food on the island rises little by little. The island imports more than 85 percent of its goods rise.
Myrna Izquierdo, who helps run a clinic in Toa Baja for HIV-positive men, received more than $1,000 in donations after coverage of her struggle to cope with the food stamp reductions. But the 40 percent cut to their food stamp benefits, as well as a 50 percent cut in the cash supplement, has cost the clinic several thousand more dollars than were brought in through donations.
“We still need help,” Izquierdo said.