Forty-two years after Puerto Rico lost access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits during President Ronald Reagan’s (R) budget cuts, Congress looks to revive the program in the territory and fight for food security on the islands. Currently, Puerto Ricans qualify for reduced benefits under the limited Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), unlike residents of Guam and the US Virgin Islands, who have access to SNAP. Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico introduced the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act in the House of Representatives in January. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut introduced the bill in the Senate in late March.
The bill would enable Puerto Rico to transition back to SNAP, requiring the territorial government to submit a transition plan to the Department of Agriculture. NAP has yearly fixed funding, as it is a consolidated block grant. In comparison, SNAP funding adjusts based on the number of participants per state as it is more flexible based on need. The exclusion from SNAP in 1981 caused Puerto Rico to lose billions in aid and reduced nutrition aid by 25%.
Almost half of the islands’ population, about 1.4 million, receive NAP benefits. As Puerto Rico imports about 85% of its food, leading to high costs, between 30% to 40% of Puerto Ricans face food insecurity. Proponents of the bill highlighted the need for flexibility during economic emergencies and natural disasters, as Puerto Rico faced Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, Hurricane Fiona in 2022, and earthquakes in 2020. The NAP block grant does not have disaster precautions similar to Disaster SNAP, which results in the need for new appropriations by Congress to supply benefits during disasters. The territory also experienced an economic downturn connected to its ongoing debt crisis and the impacts of the pandemic.
In a press release, Gillibrand highlighted, “For more than forty years, Puerto Rico has been unfairly excluded from SNAP, which has resulted in billions of dollars in lost aid and reduced nutrition benefits for more than one million Puerto Ricans. The bipartisan Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act would correct this injustice and enable Puerto Ricans to participate in SNAP, as well as to receive Disaster SNAP in the wake of natural disasters or emergencies.” Gillibrand, who has spearheaded the effort to pass the bill in the Senate, introduced a version in the last Congress though it expired in committee. This year, she aims to shepherd the bill out of the Senate Agricultural Committee and include the bill in the 2023 Farm Bill.
González-Colón added, “Nutrition assistance programs, particularly SNAP, are essential to support the health and well-being of millions of people across the United States. Unfortunately, the American citizens living in Puerto Rico do not have access to this federal program. In turn, we have a block grant that limits the assistance that can be provided […] This program also cannot accommodate sudden increases in demand during natural disasters or emergency situations, when vulnerable populations need it the most.” The bill has already picked up interest in Senate leadership, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York said in a separate statement, “Puerto Ricans are American citizens, not second-class citizens. […] I’m committed to right past wrongs by enabling Puerto Rico to fully participate in SNAP and ensuring the people of Puerto Rico have the access to federal resources that they deserve.”