October 13, 2022
Two hurricanes — Fiona and Ian — inflicted massive damage on Puerto Rico and Florida in September 2022, but the federal nutrition program responses have differed significantly. As a federal entitlement program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to respond quickly and effectively to changes in need, whether due to economic downturns or natural disasters. It is available in all states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico’s counterpart program, the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), however, is a block grant with fixed funding that hampers its ability to fully meet needs, including in disasters. It is long past the time for our nation to correct this inequity and provide Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands with pathways to the SNAP entitlement that serves other Americans.
SNAP Working as Designed in Florida
Even before Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on September 28, 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had approved the state advancing October SNAP benefits for many Florida SNAP households to help them in storm preparations. Soon thereafter, President Biden issued emergency disaster declarations that opened the way for additional federal aid.
In early October 2022, regular SNAP participants in 19 hard-hit Florida counties had replacement benefits loaded automatically onto their Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards. Florida then opened English, Spanish, and Creole portals for pre-registration for Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) that provide temporary benefits for those households living or working in the affected areas and not already participating in regular SNAP.
Building on lessons learned during Hurricane Irma and the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has approved a hybrid D-SNAP enrollment model that includes in-person and virtual D-SNAP operations. Florida estimates that when fully phased in, more than 740,000 Florida households could receive temporary D-SNAP benefits.
Numerous other tools in the D-SNAP toolbox also have been tapped in Florida. Given that many residents remain without access to shelter and/or cooking facilities, USDA has approved use of SNAP benefits to purchase hot prepared food. USDA also extended certification periods to ease administrative burdens for SNAP participants and caseworkers.
Lack of Robust NAP Response in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, by contrast, the NAP response has been quite limited. USDA’s NAP approvals have been limited to the hot prepared food waiver and a short-term extension of NAP certification periods.
Without the SNAP entitlement, augmenting NAP does not happen automatically but relies on special action by Congress.
Congress should pass extra funding for NAP to help respond to Fiona. On a permanent basis, our nation needs to build on the lessons of 2022, as well as earlier disasters. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, it was clear that the lack of SNAP for Puerto Rico disadvantages it, especially in the wake of disaster. Maintaining SNAP’s entitlement structure and extending it to all parts of the United States would buttress our nation’s disaster preparedness and promote equity. Passing H.R. 4077/S.2192, which in addition to improving SNAP benefit adequacy would provide pathways for SNAP in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands, should be a priority.