The Farm Bill is an enormous legislative package on food and agriculture that is passed about every five years. The previous Farm Bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, expired on September 30, 2023, and the new one has been stalled in Congress while representatives struggle to pass a budget for the nation. The Farm Bill includes things like crop insurance and farm subsidies, but it also includes nutrition assistance for needy families. Puerto Rico has many needy families — 40% of the Island’s residents have been identified as food insecure — and the new Farm Bill may help them by transitioning the territory from NAP to SNAP.
NAP is a limited block grant which provides much less food assistance than the comparable SNAP program which is used in the states. It doesn’t expand to see the needs of the residents, as SNAP funds do, but is capped at a specific amount, regardless of the needs it is required to stretch to fit.
“More than 40 years ago, Puerto Rico was ousted from the nation’s federal food assistance program, with its food assistance benefits converted to an inflexible block grant and cut substantially,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. “The upcoming farm bill is an opportunity to right this long-standing inequity and fully integrate the territory back into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).”
Would statehood make a difference?
While it is certainly true that transitioning Puerto Rico from NAP to SNAP would make an enormous difference for Puerto Rico, we should not let the first half of that statement slip by us. Puerto Rico was originally included in the nutrition assistance program along with the states. Congress can change the rules for territories at any time. For Puerto Rico, Congress simply decided that providing the same food help for Puerto Rico as for the states was too expensive. They cut the available funds by about 25%, not because there was less need, but quite literally to reduce costs.
Congress would not be able to arbitrarily cut the amount of food available to hungry people in Mississippi or New Mexico, the poorest states of the Union. SNAP is an entitlement, so everyone in those states who is eligible receives the benefits. Not so in Puerto Rico. Many households in Puerto Rico live below the poverty limit and would be eligible for food stamps if they lived in a state, but do not qualify for these benefits in Puerto Rico because the NAP program does not have enough food to go around.
As a state, Puerto Rico would automatically receive SNAP benefits just as all the current states do.
As a state, Puerto Rico could also expect to be more prosperous, just as all current states which used to be territories became more prosperous after statehood. But those who need food assistance would be able to receive it. As a territory, Puerto Rico may be transitioned to SNAP under the current farm bill…and removed from the program again in the next one.
Will Puerto Rico be transitioned to SNAP?
The Food Research and Action Center advocates for the transition, and they recently published an article by Gina Plata-Nino, the Deputy Director of the SNAP. She quotes a district court decision: “[D]enying needy U.S. citizens equal access to the [Supplemental Security Income], SNAP, and Low Income Subsidy] safety nets simply because they reside in Puerto Rico is unconstitutional, [and] a breach of ‘our American ideal of fairness.’” She goes on to say, “As United States Citizens, Puerto Ricans have the right to urgent and equitable food access and should not be subject to fewer benefits solely based on residency.”
She mentions two current bills, the Closing the Meal Gap Act (H.R.3037/S.1336) and the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act of 2023. These bills both include transition to SNAP for Puerto Rico. Like the provision in the Farm Bill, they could help reduce hunger on the Island.
But like the provisions in Farm Bill, they could also be rescinded by a future Congress. Statehood is the real solution.