May 13, 2020

Harris, Colleagues Introduce Nutrition Equity Bill for Puerto Rico, Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Wednesday joined Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and 16 of their colleagues in introducing the Equitable Nutrition Assistance for the Territories Act of 2020 to ensure that in the face of the economic, public-health, and food-security crises posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the people of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa receive equal access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last month, Harris and Sanders announced legislation opening up the federal SNAP program to more people, which included expanding SNAP benefits for territories.

The federal SNAP program is designed to respond to meet the needs of food-insecure Americans during times of high poverty, unemployment, and economic downturns, automatically expanding coverage. Under SNAP, everyone who is eligible receives benefits. The block grant that exists for these three territories’ nutrition assistance means that no matter how many people face food insecurity, the amount of funding remains flat.

Puerto Rico is in especially dire need of increased food assistance funding due to a decades-long economic crisis, hundreds of recent earthquakes, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated certain parts of the island. Prior to the outbreak, one-third of adults experienced food insecurity. Since then, the island has seen an increase of over 10,000 new families applying for nutrition support. 

In the early 1980s, Congress removed Puerto Rico from what was then the Food Stamp Program and replaced it with a block grant. A family of four in Puerto Rico receives a maximum basic benefit of $410 per month compared to $649 for a family of four living in the continental United States. The Equitable Nutrition Assistance for the Territories Act of 2020 transitions Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa to SNAP benefits.

“We are in the midst of a historic public health and economic crisis and the people of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are, like other Americans, struggling to put food on the table,” said Harris. “It is time for Congress to take immediate action to end the discriminatory treatment of Americans living in U.S. territories and help give people the resources they need to afford food during tough times.”

“Millions of families are struggling to put food on the table during this devastating pandemic. The people of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa deserve the same help from the federal government as any state—period,” Sanders said. “This bill would end unequal treatment of the territories, help Puerto Rico recover from the earthquakes, and aid some of the most vulnerable in our society during this time of global crisis. Right now, we are all in this together and we cannot tolerate American citizens going hungry, living on U.S. soil, being denied the support they are entitled to.”

“Puerto Ricans are American citizens who fight and die in our wars,” said Velázquez. “It is shameful and unconscionable that, when it comes to food security, they receive disparate treatment through a program that fails to help them when they need it most. No child in our nation should ever go hungry, but especially not after natural disasters or during a historic pandemic. Unfortunately, the current nutrition assistance program fails Puerto Rico when food demand is highest. This legislation would fix this longstanding injustice and I’m proud to join Bernie Sanders in introducing it,” Velázquez added.

Along with Harris, Sanders, and Velázquez, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Booker (D-NJ), Markey (D-MA), Blumenthal (D-CT), Gillibrand (D-NY), Menendez (D-NJ), Warren (D-MA) and Klobuchar (D-MN); Representatives Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Moore (D-WI), Grijalva (D-AZ), Gonzalez-Colón (D-PR), Espaillat (D-NY), Holmes Norton (D-DC), Serrano (D-NY), Meng (D-NY), and Lee (D-CA).

To read a summary of the bill, click here.

To read the text of the bill, click here.