The San Juan Daily Star
Slow disbursement of ReGrow funds makes island food security plan seem like a pipe dream
By The Star Staff
The Housing Department announced Monday that as of last Friday, the Renacer Agrícola Program (ReGrow) had disbursed $16.6 million in assistance from Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, corresponding to 252 cases, a metric significantly below the goal proposed a year ago of serving an average of 150 cases per month.
For that reason, the agency told the House Agriculture Committee that last July it established an alternate method with the Department of Agriculture to expedite the application evaluation process. However, the subrecipient agreement signed on Nov. 8, 2021, is still in effect.
“The Department of Agriculture is complying with the agreement. They are not necessarily the numbers we would like to see, but they are complying with the agreement because they are doing their job,” said Maytte Texidor, associate secretary of the CDBG-DR program, during a public hearing to update data on ReGrow management.
“What is certain is that we are trying to expedite the disbursement process so that this money can get into the hands of the farmers,” she said.
According to the Housing Department, there is about $3.9 million in process for the disbursement of CDBG-DR funds, which would be equivalent to 60 additional farmers assisted. Similarly, as of last Friday, the ReGrow Program had 2,757 active cases. Of this total, 1,239 had gone through the eligibility screening process, which has resulted in 1,079 eligible and 160 ineligible applications.
Another 1,518 applications are being evaluated according to the eligibility criteria defined in the program guidelines, as well as their compliance with federal and local regulations.
“Really here, in the end, we’ve made almost no progress since these hearings began,” said Rep. Jorge Rivera Segarra, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, who highlighted the “desperation” that exists among island farmers. “And the cases that have come out are because of the hearings, as a result of the committee’s work, because, if not, nobody receives [the subsidies] or we wouldn’t have any knowledge of where the $92 million is.”
“We are not giving the tools to the farmers to be able to have the only opportunity -- because these funds are not going to be repeated -- to re-establish their farms,” the Popular Democratic Party lawmaker added. “There is no way to [guarantee] food security in that way. It does not exist and will not exist in this country.”
During the public hearing, Texidor confirmed in response to Rivera Segarra’s questions that out of the $92 million budget for ReGrow, funds have been earmarked for the administrative expenses of the five companies subcontracted to manage the program.
She could not provide an official amount, so she must submit the information to the House committee within five working days. In addition, the Housing spokeswoman acknowledged that, as a result of those administrative payments, ReGrow-eligible farmers could receive a lower subsidy than what they are entitled to.
Texidor noted that program funds will be available through September 2026, but the expectation is that by December 2025, all programs and cases will be finalized. So far, there are still 1,496 applications that are waiting to be evaluated to determine their eligibility.
“In this investigation, what we have been able to see is how the way the program is designed makes it so the final consequence is that, of those funds, what reaches the person who is supposed to be benefited are a few droplets,” Citizen Victory Movement Rep. Mariana Nogales Molinelli said. “Really, the federal funds from the whole recovery process are made to benefit the companies before the person. And that is horrible.”
Texidor also agreed that the program’s guidelines had been amended five times in order to “adjust to the realities” to address controversies in certain individual cases.
Rivera Segarra also requested a list of farmers and agricultural entities that have received subsidies to date. When asked if any family members of the Agriculture secretary have received funds from the program, Texidor said she had no knowledge.
“I am shocked to visualize in my mind the structure of the scaffolding they have done to be able to get a check …” Rivera Segarra said. “I can understand, perhaps, that there are processes, but we have had five years since [hurricane] Maria; five amendments to the guidelines.”
“More money has been spent on administration than on the money given to the farmers,” he said. “It is disrespectful to the country and our farmers who have been waiting for so long.”