Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Modesta Irizarry has seen the growing toll of food insecurity across communities in Puerto Rico.
From homeless people and families living in middle-class neighborhoods to those who are unemployed or on food stamps, over 2,000 families from different walks of life are showing up at the town of Loíza every other Saturday to pick up grocery boxes.
"Maybe it doesn’t affect all communities in the same way," Irizarry told NBC News in Spanish, "but it’s not normal for people to just go hungry."
Food insecurity in Puerto Rico has been a longstanding problem since the island embarked on the largest municipal bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history less than a decade ago. About one-third of adults reported facing difficulties affording adequate nutrition in 2015, according to the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics. The devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, recent earthquakes and the coronavirus pandemic have only worsened living conditions on the island—making people more likely to skip meals or eat smaller portions to make food last longer.
The increasing demand for grocery boxes Irizarry is seeing in Loíza coincides with a looming funding cliff that stands to eliminate or reduce food assistance to 1.5 million Puerto Ricans, including over 300,000 children, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program, the U.S. territory's version of food stamps, has run out of the $900 million that Congress has approved over the past year to fund the food assistance program that benefits nearly half (46 percent) of the island’s population.
But unlike SNAP benefits in the 50 states, the island’s Nutrition Assistance Program in the U.S. territory is funded through block grants that cannot be readjusted after they’ve been approved—not even to accommodate increased need during times of disaster or a pandemic.
“In August, we saw that funds began to run short. By September, we saw a funding abyss,” said Javier Balmaceda, the senior policy adviser at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who authored the analysis.
The current funding cliff stands to have “more serious repercussions” because over 100,000 people more than last year enrolled in the program, said Balmaceda.
Making matters worse, Congress excluded Puerto Rico from the Pandemic EBT program in March, which provides additional food aid to children who are missing free or reduced-price meals due to school closures. The move left hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican public school students without assistance. Puerto Rico already participates in the federal school meals programs.
On Wednesday evening, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress Rep. Jenniffer González announced that Congress approved legislation to include Puerto Rican children in the Pandemic EBT program. Now, it's up to the government of Puerto Rico and the island's Department of Education to undergo the appropriate application process in order to access the funds, according to the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that advocated in favor of the legislation.
Without enough aid for the Nutrition Assistance Program, Puerto Rico stands at a crossroad. The local government could try to keep all enrollees in the program and cut back their benefits or reduce the number of enrollees in order to keep current benefit rates. “We could also see a combination of both,” Balmaceda told NBC News.
On an island where the poverty rate is three times higher than the U.S. average and more than half of the children in Puerto Rico live in poverty, Irizarry said she has seen people lose their jobs due to coronavirus-related closures, struggle to receive unemployment benefits and be told they don’t qualify for the Nutrition Assistance Program.
Preliminary figures from Puerto Rico’s Labor Department put the island’s unemployment rate post-coronavirus at around 31 percent. Other experts and economists such as José Caraballo-Cueto estimate the unemployment rate could be as high as 46 percent.
On Sunday, Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced that Puerto Rico will use $59.3 million to give a one-time “special payment” to 1.5 million Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees this week. She said in a Spanish-language statement that the payments are part a “redistribution of resources that are reserved to attend emergencies as well as available resources from other surplus items at the end of the federal fiscal year,” which ends this Wednesday.
“This indicates to us that these funds are the last of it and there’s nothing else until hopefully the next fiscal year,” Balmaceda told NBC News.
The $59 million are only enough to provide a payment of $39.40 to each enrollee.
“They talk about millions but then tell you that each family is only getting thirty something dollars and when you put that in perspective, you’re like… What’s the improvement?” said Irizarry. “The pandemic is not going away and the situation is only getting worse.”
Puerto Rico faced a similar Nutrition Assistance Program funding cliff last year when the U.S. territory ran out of $1.27 billion Congress approved to respond to the growing need after Hurricane Maria.
In the short term, it’s imperative that Congress includes aid for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program in the Heroes Act, said Balmaceda.
The constant funding cliffs, however, point to a bigger, systemic issue that perpetuates food insecurity in the U.S. territory.
“When those benefits go up and down like a roller coaster, it makes it difficult for enrollees to budget their meals,” said Balmaceda. “The inconsistency of these funds prevents them from having certainty.”
The only way to change the current funding structure of the Nutrition Assistance, which “undoubtedly does not measure up to Puerto Rico’s needs,” is through congressional legislation, said Balmaceda. Puerto Rico has no voting representation in Congress.
“A lot of times we try to measure these things with numbers, and we lose touch and empathy towards the real need we’re witnessing,” said Irizarry. “The pandemic came to really screw things over badly” at a time when “we see so much aid getting approved, but not making its ways to our communities.”