Congress: Americans in Puerto Rico still need our help

The unprecedented impact of major hurricanes Irma and María in Puerto Rico created one of the worst humanitarian crises in American history. The devastation, and the challenges to the recovery, are well-documented. Meanwhile, the most basic human need, access to a sustainable supply of food, remains incomplete for some. Food insecurity is a major challenge for the United States in Puerto Rico, and Congress should avoid putting the island’s recovery at risk by failing to respond to the need for additional nutritional aid.

As part of its disaster recovery assistance, Congress approved $1.2 billion for disaster nutritional assistance in Puerto Rico for FY18 and FY19. This assistance from Congress allowed over 280,000 new participants to join the program and increased benefits for over 1 million current participants. The majority of those participants were people who had lost their homes, jobs or both. Others saw their small businesses collapse. Most were elderly or disabled citizens, parents and children. 

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Even before the hurricanes, food insecurity was already high in Puerto Rico. Under normal funding levels, a family of four in Puerto Rico receives 58 percent fewer food benefits than in a state or other territory. Before Hurricane María, a family of four received up to $410 per month; $102.50 per person; $3.41 per day; $1.13 per meal on average. With the additional funding after the disaster, the same family of four is receiving $649 per month; $162 per person; $1.80 per meal. An increase of 67 cents per meal.

Although we are grateful for the bipartisan effort made by Democrats and Republicans in 2017, this vital food funding runs out in just a few weeks. This critical situation was certified by Puerto Rico’s Secretary on Family Services in a letter sent to the USDA on Sept. 19, 2018.

Why? Typically, when a disaster occurs anywhere else in America, Disaster SNAP is activated. The secretary of Agriculture determines the need and sends funds to help deal with the crisis. However, Puerto Rico is not included in SNAP, and receives its nutritional assistance through a block grant called Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP). This requires food insecurity caused by a disaster to be handled by Congress through a specific appropriation for disaster relief.

In recent weeks, the U.S. House, led by the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyWhite House won't move forward with billions in foreign aid cuts Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid MORE (D-N.Y.), passed legislation to provide an additional $600 million in disaster nutrition benefits for Puerto Rico. The appropriation is part of a broader bill to benefit communities in need of emergency disaster assistance including Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The U.S. Congress should be aided by the fact that food security is not a partisan issue.  Puerto Ricans in the mainland live in blue states such as New York and New Jersey and in red states such as Florida and Texas. The island is the 5th largest market for U.S. agricultural products and over 80 percent of the island’s $3.2 billion agricultural consumption comes from the United States—specifically benefitting agricultural states that provide the goods. Moreover, research from the Puerto Rico Food Security Coalition has found that U.S. agricultural exports to Puerto Rico, in 2014, supported over 56,700 full-time civilian jobs.

Soon this additional funding request will be considered in the U.S. Senate. We encourage Senate Leaders Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (R-Ky.) and Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? MORE (D-N.Y.) to lead the Senate to approve this funding to ensure the island continues its fragile recovery. 

President Ronald Reagan used to say that: “if there is one person in this country hungry, that is one too many, and we're going to do what we can to alleviate that situation.''

Disaster relief like NAP provides a hand up, not a hand-out. Puerto Ricans are Americans. And America doesn’t leave Americans behind. Neither should Congress.

Rodriguez is spokesperson of The Coalition for Food Security in Puerto Rico, a nonpartisan issue coalition supported by over 50 US National nonprofits and businesses and the top grocery and agricultural retailers of the Island. www.food4pr.com @Food4PR