hunger in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, exacerbating the hardships already faced by the people of the island. According to the 2016 U.S. Census, of the island’s 3.4 million people, 44 percent live in poverty. Due to the combination of these circumstances, hunger in Puerto Rico has increased.

However, much attention has been brought to the difficulties on the island resulting from the hurricane, leading to widespread relief efforts from individual volunteers and nonprofit organizations. Together, these groups are working to help Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico is a United States territory, yet, as recently as September 2017, only 54 percent of Americans knew that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens as well. This complicates the aid and relief efforts from the U.S. government that Puerto Rico is eligible to receive, making volunteer efforts to alleviate hunger in Puerto Rico even more important.

10 Facts About Hunger in Puerto Rico

  1. Before the 2017 hurricanes, Puerto Ricans were four times more likely to be food insecure than the U.S. average. The Nutrition Assistance Program in Puerto Rico is the island’s main anti-hunger program and helps feed low-income residents.
  2. After Hurricane Maria, 85 percent of Puerto Ricans were food insecure. This means that the vast majority of the island’s population did not have a reliable means to access nutritious meals. This percentage continues to drop as essential utilities, such as electricity, are restored on the island.
  3. The availability of food in supermarkets was limited after the hurricane, and the food that was available saw high price surges. To combat this, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, asked the Department of Justice to investigate and sued the supermarket chains that increased their prices.
  4. One mayor estimated that 5,000 residents faced starvation. The government did not allocate adequate food resources for each person, preventing them from accessing the appropriate quantities of food. Federal aid, farming and volunteer food efforts worked to combat this problem and bring food to the island.
  5. Hurricane Maria destroyed about a quarter of Puerto Rico’s farmland, making it difficult to grow crops long-term. The U.S. Department of Agriculture worked to assess the damage and make sure people received food.
  6. Eighty percent of the current crops were destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which equals $780 million lost. Crops such as plantains, coffee, sugarcane and citrus fruits were destroyed. However, some farmers were able to maintain some areas to feed themselves when no other food sources were available.
  7. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided more than $1 billion in aid and more than four million meals. They have also provided clean, safe drinking water.
  8. #ChefsforPuertoRico provides meals to thousands of Puerto Ricans. It is run by celebrity chef Jose Andrés alongside Puerto Rican chefs to ensure access to food each day.
  9. Volunteer efforts are ongoing. High school students worked to assemble easy to cook, nutritious and allergy-free meals to send to Puerto Rico as recently as February 2018. The meals they assemble stay good for up to three years before cooking, which makes them easy to transport.
  10. Even with these efforts, more aid is still necessary. Federal aid alone has not been sufficient and increasing the resources sent to Puerto Rico would help ensure sufficient healthy food access for all the residents of the island.

Even though hunger in Puerto Rico increased after the devastating hurricanes in 2017, the numbers are now decreasing, largely thanks to volunteer efforts and island restoration. Further, rebuilding opens a possibility to develop an environmentally and socially sustainable island that could alleviate the high rates of hunger and poverty, allowing Puerto Rico to endure the effects of a future hurricane more easily.

– Hayley Herzog

Photo: Flickr

Hunger in Puerto Rico
The causes of hunger in Puerto Rico range from a number of significant and complex problems, but nothing is worsening the problem faster than its economic conditions and more recently, natural causes.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War brought an end to nearly four centuries of colonial rule. The United States acquired the island of Puerto Rico, now regarded as a U.S. territory. In 1917, Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship, and similarly to inhabitants of states in the U.S., they hold democratic elections for local and state governments and have their own constitution.

In recent years, Puerto Ricans have dealt with deteriorating infrastructure, a 45 percent poverty rate, severe water pollution, lack of educational resources and a massive public debt crisis. A byproduct of most of these problems is the prevailing issue of hunger in Puerto Rico.

Economic Turmoil

Puerto Rico is more than $70 billion in debt and as of 2016, public debt accounted for 92.5 percent of their entire GDP. These circumstances are unique: understanding how they acquired such debt requires understanding the basic history of their economic policy as well as a few key events that have taken place over the last century. What has transpired can be compared to that of a domino effect.

The first “domino” to fall, by and large, was government overspending. Unlike states in the U.S. that are mandated to create and present balanced budgets, Puerto Rico is not. This resulted in overall spending significantly exceeding that of its tax-generated revenue.

Puerto Rico’s tax collection is one of the lowest in the world, deriving just 9.5 percent of its GDP from taxes in 2016. The CIA World Factbook report ranked the island 215 out of 220 countries in terms of taxation revenue, ranking only above Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria.

Secondly, for decades, due to its lack of statehood, the island was able to serve as a tax shelter for U.S. businesses, particularly pharmaceutical companies. During this time, economic prosperity reached a peak for the island. However, as of 2006, Congress eliminated these tax breaks entirely, resulting in total economic devastation for the island after most businesses moved back to the mainland.

There is also a rapid rate of skilled professionals leaving the island for the U.S. Many estimates assert that almost one doctor per day leaves the island, sometimes as many as two or three.

The economy has contracted each year since and recovery is unlikely. The GDP real growth rate has become one of the slowest in the world, at 0 percent in 2015 and then falling to -1.8 percent in 2016.

The final, and perhaps largest, hurdle the island must resolve in regards to its debt is that unlike other U.S. states, Puerto Rico cannot legally file for Chapter Nine Bankruptcy. This means that they are not only, by all definitions of the word, bankrupt, but that they also have no safety net or alternative resolution.

Agriculture, Trade and Commerce

Historically, agriculture has only accounted for 0.8 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP. However, following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, it is estimated that it only took the storm a few hours to destroy $780 million worth of crops or about 80 percent of the island’s total supply. This prompted immediate food shortages and inflated food prices, causing poverty and hunger in Puerto Rico to instantly become a new reality for thousands of residents.

Trade and commerce, as well as the supply of aid, were affected in the aftermath of the storm, specifically in relation to the Jones Act of 1920. The act mandates that all goods shipped to and from the island (or between any two U.S. ports) must be on guard, U.S. vessels that are operated by Americans. As a result, foreign logistics companies wishing to do such business have to pay a special tariff.

When considering Puerto Rico’s poverty rate, this is devastating to those experiencing hunger in Puerto Rico. Inevitably, Puerto Ricans will continue to pay significantly more for consumer goods and services than those who live on the U.S. mainland.

Hurricane Maria’s Role in Puerto Rico Hunger

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017.  The death toll reached 48 as of October 14, 2017, with 117 individuals remaining unaccounted for. In addition, an estimated 85 percent of the island remains without power, about 1.2 million people are without access to clean drinking water and the preexisting issue of hunger in Puerto Rico is only becoming worse.

Since then, President Donald Trump and his administration have maintained that all relief efforts are being exhausted to the fullest extent possible. This narrative conflicts with many accounts from Puerto Rican government officials, who have said the response at the federal level has been slow-moving and inadequate.

Governor Ricardo Rossello has publicly stated on multiple occasions that the territory is in desperate need of further federal assistance, describing the situation as a “humanitarian crisis.” Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, has also made headlines in the recent weeks following her televised plea to the federal government, saying “I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying … you are killing us with the inefficiency.”

Initially, Mr. Trump cited geographical concerns that present significant logistical problems to be the cause of this. “This is an island, surrounded by water, big water. Ocean water,” Trump said in a September 2017 speech in Washington, D.C.

However, during a press conference while visiting the island, he was quick to cite the island’s budget crisis, saying, “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you have thrown our budget a little out of whack. We have spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.”

Additionally, while the administration did temporarily exempt the territory from the Jones Act, this exemption expired on October 8, 2017.

In a recent survey conducted by the New York Times, just over half of the U.S. population is unaware that individuals born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Fortunately, many informed U.S. citizens support providing aid to Puerto Rico: among those who are aware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, 81 percent think aid should be provided.

Hunter Mcferrin

Photo: Flickr