Puerto Rico probably can’t provide enough food assistance for hurricane recovery

The island's program is already stretched thin. And it’s only getting worse.

People wait in line outside a grocery store in San Juan, Sept. 25, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Fox)
People wait in line outside a grocery store in San Juan, Sept. 25, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Fox)

As millions of Puerto Ricans continue to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the number of citizens in need of governmental food assistance will surge over the next few months. But the territory probably won’t have the means to provide for it.  

Approximately 40 percent of Puerto Ricans rely on food stamps funded by the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), which received a $2 billion federal block grant in 2012. With much of the island now in ruins, that number will likely increase, as evidenced by recent figures from Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Texas’ Health and Human Services reported an increase of approximately 737,000 individuals since August who will rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance to low-income people.

NAP is much more restrictive than SNAP, as it is funded by a block grant and subject to an annual cap, forcing Puerto Rico to target eligibility and benefits only to those households who are most financially needy. While new NAP figures since Hurricane Maria are unavailable, it is likely that, due to the storm’s impact, more Puerto Ricans will be able to qualify for the program.

The Office of Management and Budget’s disaster relief request, released Wednesday, requests approximately $13 billion to fund additional response and recovery needs in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Texas. But the request does not specify any increases in food assistance.


Oxfam American, a global humanitarian organization, criticized the Trump administration this week for its “inadequate” handling of the Puerto Rico crisis. The president and Congress should pass supplemental appropriations for disaster relief at a funding level that reflects “the extent of the damage, assessed currently at upwards of $70 billion to $90 billion,” Oxfam humanitarian press officer Lauren Hartnett told ThinkProgress in an email.

Hartnett added that any aid must “prioritize the most vulnerable,” including “the poorest individuals, children and the elderly, especially in rural and mountain areas.”

The looming increase in food assistance recipients comes amid confusion surrounding the government’s disaster relief waivers of certain NAP rules. According to the Department of Agriculture, Puerto Rico submitted a request on September 28 to delay a scheduled decrease in the percentage of NAP benefits that can be converted to cash (currently, 20 percent of the benefits can be redeemed as cash, but that provision is in the process of being phased out, as required by law). In addition, the territory requested that NAP recipients be permitted to use their food stamps to buy hot, ready-made meals from restaurants, which the program typically does not allow.    

The USDA responded two days later, granting both requests, although Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Tuesday that the federal government had denied the request. According to a USDA spokesperson, it is unclear what caused the misunderstanding.  

Because Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules prohibit the government from responding to potential waivers or needs without a formal request, the issue of food assistance was overlooked for more than a week following the hurricane.


FEMA has stopped providing updated statistics on Puerto Ricans’ access to water and electricity, but a site maintained by the governor’s office reports that only 55 percent of the population has clean drinking water and only 10.7 percent has electricity. It is unlikely that many citizens will be able to take advantage of the NAP cash benefits, as more than a quarter of the island’s ATM machines are not functioning. About 65 percent of supermarkets have reopened, but reports indicate that some stores are still not accepting food stamps.

“I have food stamps, but none of the stores are taking them. Until they reestablish that service, I just don’t know what we are going to do. It’s a crisis, because we do not have cash either,” said Cánovanas resident Carmen DeLeon, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, displaced Puerto Rican NAP participants who have relocated to the mainland United States can apply for SNAP benefits until October 31.