Congress must act to fix military hunger in National Defense Authorization Act

Congress must act to fix military hunger in National Defense Authorization Act
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Congress is poised to address one of its core priorities for which bipartisanship and compromise have always been the approach. 

Congressional deliberations are close to final for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a $730+ billion legislative package that provides authorization for our national security from military operations, major weapons systems and cybersecurity, to vital programs associated with military family life, including compensation and benefits. 

Consistently lacking in the dialogue, however, is the long-overlooked yet urgent issue of hunger and food insecurity among military service members.

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The need to act is stunning. According to Pentagon records obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request, 30 percent of military children attending Department of Defense-run schools in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced lunch. Not coincidentally, there is a food pantry operating on or near every military base in the United States, a dramatic indicator of the breadth of military food insecurity.

We say enough is enough. America’s military service members are called upon to defend our great nation, yet are struggling to make ends meet, a completely unacceptable situation requiring urgent attention.

Struggling with food insecurity should never be a consequence of military service, yet it has become commonplace, especially for the lowest-earning personnel.

What is difficult to digest is that while the United States pours billions each year into trainings, field exercises, and routine education to ensure we have a mission-ready military, behind the soldiers are families struggling to feed themselves and their children. 

Military units deploy frequently and are required and expected to be mission-ready. In order to have a military that is mentally and physically capable of focusing on the mission, we must ensure that the families are not struggling to put food on the table. 

Military hunger is not openly discussed because of fear of repercussion and judgement from the military community and chain of command — all the way up to the Pentagon. It is our job as Americans, and the job of those we elect to represent us, to give this struggle a voice, and to support those who put their lives on the line to protect our country and it's freedoms. 

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We helped to design the “Military Family Basic Needs Allowance” to address this persistent challenge being experienced by military families nationwide. It must be included in the final 2020 NDAA. With this provision, Congress would provide a modest supplement to base pay for all service members earning at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, ensuring that military personnel are able to provide basic needs for their family members, including food.

As this year’s NDAA advances, Congress has a window of opportunity to do the right thing.

We urge Congress, especially House and Senate Armed Services Committee leadership, to prioritize this provision in the final NDAA bill. With this new allowance, Congress can do right by our nation’s military families and prioritize helping those among them who struggle needlessly with hunger, particularly children.

Let’s ensure that no one goes hungry while they or their family member is serving our country. Our military families deserve better. 

Abby J. Leibman is the president and CEO of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Kelly Hruska is the government relations director at the National Military Family Association.