COVID-19 has made food insecurity worse in Puerto Rico

A local food bank doubles the amount of food given out.

June 2, 2020, 12:26 PM

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the phone at the Food Bank of Puerto Rico hasn't stop ringing. The food organization's president, Denise Santos, says that ever since the island went into lockdown in mid-March, they've seen a surge of people in need.

Prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit, which is part of the Feeding America network, served approximately 1 million pounds of food per month. That number has nearly doubled, reaching 1.9 million pounds, Santos says.

"The stories we hear from people are sad; they are desperate," she added.

PHOTO: 'Aportando a tu mesa' focuses on helping those in need by providing food supplies and meals.
'Aportando a tu mesa' focuses on helping those in need by providing food supplies and meals.
Courtesy Michelle Valentin

But hunger in Puerto Rico didn't start with the pandemic. A study published last year shows that in 2015, 33% of the island's adult population suffered from food insecurity.

"A perfect storm"

Now, with one of the strictest lockdown orders in the U.S., Puerto Rico's economy is expected to decline in the following years, according to a forecast by the island's Financial Oversight Management Board.

Santos says that the island's financial health, poverty levels and the recent natural disasters have already taken a toll on Puerto Ricans' food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic emergency is a new burden in what she calls the island's "perfect storm."

Fortunately, as the number of people in need has become more apparent, the number of individuals trying to help has grown.

PHOTO: Michelle Valentin is shown with colleagues in this undated photo, helping distribute food in Puerto Rico.
Michelle Valentin is shown in this photo, helping distribute food in Puerto Rico.
Courtesy Michelle Valentin

Michelle Valentín is a social worker at a school in San Juan. She started helping some of her students by giving them groceries. As time passed, she started to notice how the hunger issue went beyond the community she served.

"One day I got a message with a picture that showed an empty fridge," Valentín said. That was the moment she said she decided it was time to do more.

In late April, Valentín started a Facebook page called "Aportando a tu mesa" (Contributing To Your Table), which focuses on helping individuals with food supplies and meals. Through donations and help from 20 volunteers, Valentín says she has been able to have an impact on some 8,000 people in just one month.

"Sometimes we think of people in need and other countries come to mind, but there is so much need in Puerto Rico," Valentín added.

With the uncertain economic scenario, both Santos and Valentin are worried about Puerto Ricans' well-being.

"This [food insecurity] has to be a priority; we need public policy," said Heriberto Martínez, president of Puerto Rico's Economists Association. "One of the United States' biggest sins is to have U.S. citizens going hungry," Martínez added.

Puerto Rico is not part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although the island has a food stamp program, it's based on a fixed block grant that can't be automatically adjusted if demand is high. To do so, Congress would have to approve additional funds.

Sanders and Velázquez advocate for Puerto Rico

"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," said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, of New York, in a press release.

Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Velázquez introduced the Equitable Nutrition Assistance for the Territories Act of 2020, which would allow residents in the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico to receive equal access to SNAP benefits.

"For far too long, the U.S. government has failed the people of Puerto Rico," Sanders said in a written statement.

PHOTO: A Puerto Rican flag flies on an empty beach at Ocean Park, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Puerto Rican flag flies on an empty beach at Ocean Park, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Carlos Giusti/AP

The legislation has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, Sen. Sanders' press office told ABC News.

Martínez says that while nonprofit organizations have made the difference to help those in need, it's time that both the local and federal government take action. "If food insecurity doesn't become a topic of public policy, this could lead to social conflict, misery and more migration."

As the COVID-19 emergency continues to take a toll among Puerto Ricans in need, experts are expecting that about 300,000 residents could leave the island in the next two years, according to a recent study by Inteligencia Economica, an investigative firm in Puerto Rico.

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