ABHMS’ national coordinator for intercultural ministries advocates for Puerto Rico at congressional briefing

VALLEY FORGE, PA (04/03/2024)—At a briefing for congressional offices in Washington, D.C. on March 13, 2024, the Rev. Abigail Medina-Betancourt, ABHMS’ national coordinator for Intercultural Ministries Strategy, spoke to a gathering of congressional staff on the matter of food assistance equity for Puerto Rico. Presently, 85 percent of island residents are food insecure and 60 percent of children there live below the poverty line.

Photo by Bread for the World. Rev. Abigail Media Betancourt addresses congressional staff on the issue of food insecurity in Puerto Rico.

Rev. Abigail Medina Betancourt, national coordinator for International Ministries Strategy, appears at a March 13, 2024, congressional briefing. Photo courtesy of Bread for the World.

Four decades ago, this United States territory was removed from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because of cutbacks to the Food Stamp Program championed by the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan. Puerto Ricans have since been forced to rely on the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), which provides 25 percent less funding than under SNAP.

A capped block grant with fixed annual funding, NAP cannot expand to meet increasing needs as occurs during economic downturns or in the wake of natural disasters. Further underscoring the inequity experienced by Puerto Ricans, after Hurricane Maria devasted the island in 2017, the U.S. Congress took six months to allocate funding for Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts, a significantly longer period than what Congress needed to authorize relief following more recent natural disasters that befell Texas and Florida.

A new farm bill is required to authorize Puerto Rico’s return to SNAP.

Bread for the World, a Christian nonprofit that has long advocated Puerto Rico’s cause, invited Medina Betancourt to speak at the March 13 briefing, which was co-organized by Bread for the World, Fair Food Network, The Farm Journal Foundation, Zero Food Waste Coalition, and Alliance to End Hunger.

According to Jose D. Soto Rivera, northeast regional organizer for Bread for the World, the briefing was scheduled to provide testimony about how critical it is for chairs and ranking members of Congress’ Agriculture Committee “to lead their colleagues in the House and in the Senate to pass a farm bill that puts ample, nourishing food on the plate of everyone in this country and to do so in an expeditious way.”

Medina Betancourt, a native Puerto Rican, described from personal experience how the NAP program works on the ground. She relied on NAP for sustenance during her childhood. “Many think that adults in their productive ages do not deserve NAP, but in most cases, what really matters is the children who receive the benefits through their families,” she said. She also explained how in the context of skyrocketing food prices and the limited food assistance available, many Puerto Ricans in the U.S. who would like to return to the island simply cannot afford to.

Thirty-eight congressional staff representing the offices of eighteen different states attended the briefing. This included staff who work for members of Congress on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition. The event was covered in a Bloomberg newsletter and a March 14 Agri-Pulse podcast, where Medina-Betancourt was quoted.

ABHMS’ Intercultural Ministries staff have previously advocated for Puerto Rico’s transition  back to SNAP. In August 2023, Medina Betancourt appeared on radio program “Somos Uno, ” led by pastor Luis Roig Casillas, director of the faith-based office in La Fortaleza (the equivalent of the White House in Puerto Rico). The conversation focused on making visible the significant contributions that nonprofits from the third sector and faith-based organizations make together. A day later, the Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, director of Intercultural Ministries, and the Rev. Abner Cotto-Bonilla, national coordinator for Latino Ministries, joined in a dialogue with Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Agriculture. Then in September 2023, Medina Betancourt participated in the 2023 Farm Bill Listening Session held at the San Juan District Office of Congresswoman González Colón, the 20th Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico. González Colón and Thompson were in attendance.