In Puerto Rico, 40 percent suffer food insecurity with no end in sight

Even before the pandemic, Denise Santos was struggling to get food to in-need families in Puerto Rico. As president of the Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico, the island’s largest food bank, she had spent the years that followed Hurricanes Irma and Maria—which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017—working to fight hunger. Then, in January, a massive earthquake hit, unleashing thousands of smaller temblors that left thousands of families homeless, and destroyed infrastructure. Two months later, the pandemic struck. 

“Puerto Rico is like a fighter in the ring,” Santos said. “After the first hit, we immediately come back up. After the second, it takes a little more effort, but we get up again. After the third hit, we’re stumbling. The pandemic was the last straw, and we’re struggling to stand up again.”

The economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have pushed nearly half of Puerto Ricans into hunger. According to a September survey by George Washington University, 40 percent of families reported food insecurity—a lack of consistent access to enough food—due to Covid-19. That was up from about a third before the pandemic. Twenty percent said that an adult in the household had to skip meals due to insufficient funds, compared to an already-striking 14 percent before the pandemic. 

The U.S. territory’s chronic food insecurity even predates the natural disasters and pandemic. A study from 2015 showed that 22 percent of adults reported skipping meals or eating less because they could not afford food. 

 This systemic problem stems in part from Puerto Rico’s poverty rate, which has long exceeded that of any U.S. state, especially among children. In 2018, 43 percent of residents lived in poverty, along with 58 percent of children. Although data during the pandemic remains spotty, experts have estimated that Covid-19 has sent the poverty rate up to 46 percent—compared to a projected 9.2 percent among U.S. states—and up to 70 percent among children.

“When people talk about going back to pre-pandemic, well, what were things like pre-pandemic in Puerto Rico?” asked Brayan Rosa, the public policy manager at the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, which conducts research on child well-being. “If you wanted to find a good time for kids in Puerto Rico, with a small or minimum number of kids living with food insecurity, you’d have to go back a very long time.”

Even while Puerto Ricans have struggled to put food on the table, federal assistance has fallen short. Puerto Rico has been excluded from many government pandemic relief measures, and does not benefit from the SNAP program that provides food assistance to low-income families across the United States. Those administrative roadblocks, along with on-the-ground challenges of getting food to families, have created dire conditions as Puerto Rico sees new spikes in infections going into the winter months. 

Critically, Puerto Rico was inadvertently left out of the Pandemic-EBT program, which transferred funds for school meals onto debit cards for families. Despite rollout challenges, the program was extremely effective in helping feed an estimated 30 million children when schools were closed. But because P-EBT operates through the SNAP program, Congress would have had to add specific language to include Puerto Rico’s children. That didn’t happen when the program was created in March.

Although Puerto Rico will now benefit from the next round of P-EBT for the 2020-2021 school year, the USDA has yet to provide instructions for implementation. “We’re basically shouting to anyone who could hear us that this is something that needs to be done as quickly as possible,” Rosa said. “This is over 300,000 children that are left out, more than in some U.S. mainland states. This is about decision-makers not taking into account the lives being affected.”

Advocates question whether the island’s initial exclusion from P-EBT was accidental, since Puerto Rico historically has been deprived of funds. “With Maria, every month you heard people say, there are billions of dollars for Puerto Rico, but it was always held up,” Santos said, “because of bureaucratic requirements.”

The pandemic has also revealed the limits of the Nutritional Assistance Program, or NAP, which Puerto Ricans rely on for food assistance; even in normal times, NAP falls short of meeting families’ needs. Unlike SNAP benefits, which are drawn from a flexible budget that can expand during crises as demand grows, NAP is a fixed block grant that is capped each year. It can’t grow during a crisis to feed increasing numbers of hungry people without an act of Congress.

“NAP is like a pie,” said Brynne Keith-Jennings, a senior research analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “When there are more people who need assistance, everyone gets a smaller slice. Whereas with SNAP, you can just keep growing the pie.” Indeed, SNAP has grown by 17 percent—nearly 7 million people—between February and August; states can continue providing expanded SNAP benefits through the end of the public health emergency. Monthly NAP benefits, in contrast, have contracted by about 40 percent in recent months—a drop from $323 in July to $188 in October. The strain on NAP coincided with the expiration of other emergency benefits, such as expanded unemployment insurance.

“People still need help,” said Keith-Jennings, especially as temporary pandemic-related benefits end. Although Congress added emergency funding to NAP in March, the funds had dwindled dramatically by the summer. And even though the Puerto Rico government raised benefits from May through July, the increase only brought household benefits up to regular SNAP levels. These measures have not met the needs of 1.3 million pre-existing participants, along with the additional 200,000 that have enrolled since the pandemic began. 

When schools shuttered in mainland states in March, districts opened their cafeterias, allowing families to pick up meals their children would have otherwise received at school. In Puerto Rico, the program barely functioned at all: A month after schools shuttered, the island’s government had not touched roughly $290 million in federal funding intended for school meals. In April, a coalition of nonprofits sued the Puerto Rico Department of Education and the government. Later that month, the governor announced that school cafeterias could resume operation, but left enforcement to the discretion of mayors. The vast majority of school cafeterias, advocates say, remained closed well into the summer. 

Even when more school kitchens opened their doors in August, pick-up rates were staggeringly low. “Parents are overburdened with responsibilities,” Santos explained. “If school isn’t meeting in-person, they have to monitor virtual classes at home, or they’re at work. Or they don’t have reliable transportation.” Even before the pandemic, she added, a quarter of schools on the island had already been closed for months.

Absent adequate assistance—either due to insufficient federal funding or dysfunction among Puerto Rico’s own government agencies—charities have been left to fill the gap. And while the Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico and other organizations have tried to coordinate meal delivery, they haven’t been able to meet rising needs. 

“If you put all the nonprofit organizations together, that’s still not enough resources to cover the government’s responsibility,” Santos said. “Every organization will do what they can. But it’s not their responsibility to feed hundreds of thousands of kids.”