• The Star Staff

Food aid drying up for more Puerto Rico residents

By John McPhaul


A Washington-based public interest assistance group, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), is calling for increased food assistance to Puerto Rico, saying Puerto Rico residents are going hungry due to longstanding inequality with stateside food assistance programs and recent budget cuts.

Emergency assistance to the island in response to the multiple disasters that have befallen the island has run out, leaving a drop in food assistance from about $323 million in July to about $188 million in October, said the center’s senior research analyst, Brynne Keith-Jennings.

The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that 200,000 island residents have been added to the Nutritional Assistance Program (PAN by its Spanish acronym),which provides food assistance to Puerto Rico.

The PAN program is part of a Community Block Grant capped at $1.9 billion a year for more than 1.3 million Puerto Rico residents.

Unlike its stateside counterpart, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which fluctuates according to the price of food, the PAN allocation is fixed.

PAN beneficiaries receive close to 50 percent less benefits than their SNAP counterparts.

Additionally, they do not have access to disaster nutrition assistance, such as Disaster-SNAP, which allows beneficiaries the maximum allotment of benefits per household in the aftermath of a disaster.

“It’s really a longstanding problem,” Keith-Jennings said. “Puerto Rico receives a fixed amount of funding, [and] though they received funding due to natural disasters, they still don’t receive the funding on a par with the SNAP program, which fluctuates with the price of food.”

Congress should provide some relief in the short term, but in the long term it should put Puerto Rico on a par with the stateside jurisdictions under the SNAP program, Keith-Jennings added.

The commonwealth receives a fixed amount of federal funding each year so it must set benefit and eligibility levels that ensure program costs stay within this rigid funding level, rather than basing them on need. Meanwhile, SNAP bases benefits on an estimate of the cost of food and provides benefits to all eligible people who apply.

The CBPP made the following observation about the food disparity: Because of PAN’s limited funding, most PAN participants receive lower benefits than they likely would under SNAP, often far lower, despite very low incomes among participants and evidence suggesting higher food prices in general. PAN can’t expand participation without congressional action when more people need help buying food such as following a natural disaster or during an economic crisis — at least, not without lowering benefits. SNAP’s growth in recent months is in part because its funding lets the program expand when need increases.

The public interest group said the federal Agriculture Department should quickly work with Puerto Rico to get much-needed nutrition assistance to children, as many across the commonwealth continue to experience hardship.

“With millions of Americans struggling to meet their basic food needs in light of COVID-19, states are using new options to support households through SNAP (food stamps) and school meal replacement programs. But Puerto Rico — which was already at a relative disadvantage when the pandemic began — can’t use the same new tools and options,” Keith-Jennings said. “More federal funding for nutrition assistance and access to the same options would help the commonwealth respond to rising need due to COVID-19 and the deep economic downturn.”

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