Military families should not have to endure food insecurity

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Many members of Congress are growing more frustrated as they wait to see the specifics of the administration’s fiscal year 2022 defense budget. Up to this point, the administration has provided only a topline figure of $715 billion. Details of how that money will be allocated to the services — to continue underwriting the number of ships, aircraft, tanks and other weapons systems — remain unknown.

However, a group of congressional leaders has sounded the alarm over an issue affecting military families: food insecurity,  an issue one would not normally associate with impacting service members and their families. Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) recently reintroduced the Military Hunger Prevention Act, co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 11 members, which was rejected on two previous attempts. It has a companion bill in the House.  

For many junior enlisted personnel, especially those at the three or four lowest enlisted pay grades, their housing allowance — Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH — is considered income. By law, this allowance is supposed to cover, on average, 95 percent of housing costs including rent and utilities. The remaining 5 percent is theoretically left to the military family to pick up.     

Unfortunately, according to a recent lifestyle survey conducted by the military support group Blue Star Families, many families are paying more than $200 per month out of pocket for housing costs. Because of their low salary and the requirement to partially pay for housing costs, there is little left to pay for other essentials, including food. In theory, this predicament should qualify junior enlisted service members with families for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But because their housing allowance is considered as income, they miss the qualifications to participate in SNAP; instead, many rely on food pantries to help feed their families or turn to payday loans that can put them in a dangerous cycle of debt.     

As an example of this problem, a married E-3 (the third lowest enlisted pay grade) with one child is eligible for SNAP. But if they live off base, the money received for housing is counted as part of their overall income, eliminating their qualification for this federal support. Even if SNAP was adjusted, most service members do not want to ask for help because of the stigma associated with food stamps. A Department of Defense (DOD) solution for this problem is warranted and not the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program.     

The Armed Services YMCA, one of the top food pantry providers at military installations, reports a 400 percent increase in demand for assistance. The pandemic clearly has played a role in this increase because many military spouses have lost their civilian jobs.

This injustice is one that the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has identified among its three main advocacy issues this year as its members meet with congressional leaders.      

In addition to MOAA and Blue Star Families, the Jewish nonprofit group MAZON has weighed in on the effort to support legislation to help solve the problem of hunger in the military. MAZON is a national organization fighting to end hunger among people of all faiths. In its research, MAZON spoke with military members whose comments reflect the severity of the problem:     

“I’m doing all I can and serving my country, and I have to worry about how I’m going to buy food?” said one service member.    

“We thought being in the military might be a way out of living paycheck to paycheck. … I’m shocked that so many military families are standing in line at the food pantry because they really need help,” said another.   

No one in this country, the so-called “land of plenty,” should experience hunger or food insecurity — and especially those who raise their right hand to volunteer to serve their country and go into harm’s way to defend it.

The proposed Basic Needs Allowance in the Military Hunger Prevention Act would provide an estimated $400 monthly allowance to service members with a household gross income (not including BAH) within a band of the poverty line. The subsidy is meant to ensure no military family faces food insecurity. It would also further support financial literacy resources for junior enlisted personnel.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates around 10,200 military members would benefit from the monthly allowance. The CBO says it would cost $175 million from 2021 to 2024 — a little less than $44 million per fiscal year.     

Military families would not rely on this program for extended periods of time. Instead, it would provide much needed temporary assistance during times of financial difficulty, mostly among junior enlisted personnel. It would alleviate the need to participate in SNAP, thus reducing mandatory spending in this area and making the overall program minimal when compared to the DOD budget.  

The mental and physical effects of food insecurity directly impact a service member’s ability to do his or her job and could compromise readiness. When a service member is deployed and under stress with the mission at hand, the last thing he or she needs to worry about is whether the family at home has food on the table. It should be clear that military families are a key to the readiness and well-being of the all-volunteer force, and therefore are critical to national security.

“Our military is weakened when service members are unable to feed their families,” said Duckworth, who first introduced legislation in 2018 after learning of the issue while volunteering at a food pantry and seeing a military wife she knew.

Correcting this problem will also assist the military’s recruiting and retention efforts. No one should want to become part of, or remain in, an organization that does not take care of its people.

MOAA welcomes the reintroduction of the Military Hunger Prevention Act as an important step in ensuring military families can meet their most basic needs. The bill should be prioritized for inclusion in the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. 

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral and a board member of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.”

Tags Basic Allowance for Housing Food bank Food security Marsha Blackburn military families Tammy Duckworth

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