Despite widespread food insecurity in Puerto Rico, the United States government currently denies the territory access to essential resources from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A relic of budgetary cuts from the Ronald Reagan (R) Administration, this inequitable policy severely disadvantages Puerto Ricans in comparison to their fellow territorial citizens in Guam and the US Virgin Islands. However, new legislation introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and led by a bipartisan coalition in Congress may finally provide vital food relief for Puerto Ricans. In coordination with the 2023 Farm Bill, the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act and Closing the Meal Gap Act reinforce existing initiatives by the Biden Administration to improve Puerto Rico’s economic and humanitarian sustainability. Beyond the fundamental humanitarian benefits, the ongoing effort to pass these proposals may prove crucial as the growing popularity of the Puerto Rico Status Act could result in the territory’s annexation as the 51st US state.
Presently, the Puerto Rican government manages nutrition assistance for vulnerable groups with the limited Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP). While NAP assists 1.5 million low-income Puerto Ricans, it only provides an average of $376 per month for each eligible family. In contrast, SNAP’s food benefits equate to a more robust $505 monthly. This stark difference is a consequence of NAP’s less substantial funding framework, as federal block grants only cover half of the territorial program’s managerial expenses. Without the budgetary flexibility of SNAP, Puerto Ricans are especially susceptible to financing shortages during recessions and natural disasters, such as the recent Hurricane Fiona. Since 34% of Puerto Ricans experience food insecurity, the federal government has a clear impetus to include the territory in SNAP.
To address these issues, Senator Gillibrand, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (NPP, R), and Representative Nydia Velazquez (D) of New York recently held press conferences to promote the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act and Closing the Meal Gap Act. Initially introduced in 2022 and 2021, respectively, these bills include Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands in SNAP. To facilitate the incorporation of these territories, these bills require their local governments to submit operational and funding plans which will complement technical assistance from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). If successful, bringing Puerto Rico into SNAP would increase available funds by 73% and expand the percentage of eligible participants from 9% to 12%. These projections on the positive impacts led Gillibrand to conclude that these proposals are necessary to give Puerto Ricans “every right as American citizens.” Nevertheless, these bills will face major opposition from Republicans seeking to reduce SNAP benefits in the ongoing debt ceiling debate. Notably, the GOP-backed debt ceiling bill passed in the House imposes stricter work requirements for food stamps. Although the bill is unlikely to become law after President Biden’s veto threat, it reflects a general reluctance from Republicans to further expand SNAP for Puerto Ricans. After recent updates to a 2010 USDA report note that implementing SNAP in the territory could cost upwards of $414 million per year, Puerto Rico’s pursuit of federal food benefits will be even more difficult.