Thousands of Puerto Ricans struggled to feed themselves in the wake of Hurricane Maria, skipping meals and waiting hours in line for federal shipments of canned goods.
But a package of federal programs that could have helped feed thousands — and that channeled hundreds of dollars to needy families in Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma — have not been deployed in Puerto Rico, limiting the reach of the island’s emergency food assistance.
Among other things, the government did not issue emergency food stamps to people who lost their homes in the storm and who do not usually receive benefits, a measure that was taken in both Florida and Texas.
And additional food stamps were not issued to families who already receive them, a routine step that the Department of Agriculture takes after natural disasters.
The disparities are the result of a federal funding system designed to reduce the costs of Puerto Rico’s food stamp program. Unlike the mainland, the island receives a capped annual budget, or block grant, which limits the actions it can take in the event of an emergency or economic downturn.
Critics have called the system arbitrary and discriminatory, and some fear that it will worsen long-term food insecurity in Puerto Rico despite the recent passage of a $36.5 billion disaster relief package. About 38 percent of households in Puerto Rico rely on the food stamp program, according to the census.
“There is no rationality to Puerto Rico’s treatment in [federal] programs,” said Cesar Conda, an adviser to the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The treatment of the Americans of Puerto Rico in nutrition assistance is a particularly illuminating case of their worse-than-equal treatment . . . due to the island’s second-class status and their lack of votes in their national government.”
The gap between Puerto Rico’s food stamp program and the rest of the country’s has been particularly evident since Hurricane Maria.
In most of the United States, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program plays a major role in feeding people after natural disasters, releasing additional benefits to low-income families as well as people who have lost income or homes.
But since 1982, when congressional leaders decided that Puerto Rico was drawing too much money from SNAP, the island has been segmented off into its own Nutrition Assistance Program with a capped 2017 budget of $1.9 billion.
The sum is not sufficient to provide benefits to every Puerto Rican family that qualifies for SNAP under federal standards, a government-funded study found in 2010. Last year, the average NAP household received $239 per month, while the average SNAP household received $253, according to the Food and Nutrition Service.
The block grant also does not allow for significant emergency response, said Glorimar Andújar Matos, the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of the Family, which administers NAP. The program may carry over 2 percent of its annual budget for use in emergencies. At the time Hurricane Maria hit, the program had only $40 million in emergency funds.
That meant Puerto Rico could not access Disaster-SNAP, or D-SNAP, Andújar Matos said, referring to the USDA program that provides temporary food stamps to families who have lost income or homes and do not already receive benefits. The federal program is available in counties that have received presidential disaster declarations, which all of Puerto Rico's did. In Florida, the average household's D-SNAP benefits totaled $862, distributed over a two-month period.
The department also did not issue supplemental benefits for food stamp recipients living in disaster zones, a step that was taken within days in both Texas and Florida. The additional, one-time disbursement, which is intended to supplement lost income that would typically be spent on food, would have averaged about $478 in Puerto Rico, or twice the average monthly benefit.
The department did provide some additional benefits to households whose food was destroyed by the storm or spoiled in the power outages that followed. But while Texas and Florida replaced 100 percent of lost benefits, Puerto Rico replaced only a third before exhausting its $40 million reserve.
By comparison, Florida has spent more than $1.2 billion on emergency SNAP programs since Hurricane Irma. Texas has not released its spending numbers, but it has fed nearly 1 million people through emergency programs in Harris County alone.
“There's a real political interest in making sure we spend the bare minimum on Puerto Rico,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel with the advocacy group LatinoJustice. “Emergency aid is just another example of Puerto Ricans getting treated like second-class citizens.”
Advocates are hopeful that the island will soon see some relief. On Oct. 26, President Trump signed a disaster relief package that directed an additional $1.27 billion to NAP. Andújar Matos said her department is developing a program similar to D-SNAP, which will supply food to “anyone on the island who has been affected.” It would have “made a difference” if the funds had been available earlier, she added.
There is also some concern that even those funds, which will expire at the end of September 2019, won’t be enough to counteract the long-term effects of Hurricane Maria, which could cause years of heightened unemployment and poverty. Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warned that NAP's funding will eventually return to its pre-hurricane level, even if need remains high.
In that case, the program would have to further reduce monthly food benefits or limit eligibility.
“The fundamental flaw of block grants like NAP,” she said, “is that they aren’t designed to serve everyone who needs help.”