Abby J. Leibman & Cristin Orr Shiffer: An inexcusable hunger

MILITARY FAMILIES shouldn’t struggle with hunger. But they do — and that needs to stop.

Those who make great personal sacrifices in service to our nation should be able to provide regular, nutritious meals to their families. Yet across the country, including in Virginia with its high number of military families, currently serving members of our armed forces are showing up at food pantries — sometimes in uniform — looking for help.

Official reports on the pervasiveness of food insecurity among military families are nearly impossible to come by. An exhaustive search for accurate data from the Department of Defense, USDA, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress yields little to substantiate the existence of a problem, let alone its magnitude.

But recently, there was an acknowledgment of sorts. It was just one sentence uttered over the course of an hour-long roundtable conversation in Hampton.

“From my experience in New York, we had military families having to seek help from food pantries, and that is something that I don’t think most Americans even understand.”

Hillary Clinton made this simple declaration without fanfare or flourish. It was a direct recognition of the reality in the state she represented as senator. And even though it was the most public remark we’ve ever heard on the existence of hunger in the military, it drew not one gasp nor a single follow-up question. 

For currently serving members of the military, food insecurity is triggered by a number of circumstances. Some situations — unexpected financial emergencies or low pay — mirror challenges that civilians face. Others are restricted to the reality of military family life, such as unemployment or underemployment among military spouses, the costs incurred as a result of frequent changes of station, and the unique challenges around activation and deployment. For example, the 2015 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that 75 percent of military spouses reported that being married to a member of the military had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career. Seventy-three percent of respondents incurred unexpected expenses as a result of the military lifestyle — with 86 percent of the expenses related to mandated household moves.

Unfortunately, the reality of military families seeking help is not limited to New York. There is clear evidence of widespread reliance on food pantries and food distribution programs on and near military bases. In fact, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has learned from a source at the Pentagon that food pantries operate on or near every single Navy and Marine Corps base in the United States. Additionally, 6 percent of respondents in the 2015 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicated they had sought emergency food assistance through a food bank or other charitable organization. 

These food pantries serve a vital function in helping people during times of need, and their importance cannot and should not be undervalued. But their very existence on military bases and the frequency with which military families are using them are indications that the basic needs of those serving our country aren’t being met. Fortunately, there is a simple fix that would substantially and effectively improve the lives of thousands of servicemen and women. 

Currently, federal policy denies thousands of military families from qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). Families who live in off-base or privatized housing receive a Basic Allowance for Housing benefit. The intent of the BAH is to provide housing for uniformed service members with minimal military overhead costs by relying on the civilian housing market. However, because of an unintentional oversight by Congress, the BAH was not specifically excluded as income for determining eligibility for SNAP, systematically rendering those families ineligible.

Federal tax law exempts the BAH from taxation by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS also lists BAH as one of the tax-exempt military allowances not considered as earned income when determining eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and the Head Start program. There is no reason that the BAH should be considered differently for determining eligibility for SNAP.

Multiple attempts have been made to remove this unfair barrier. Legislation was introduced in 2015 in both the House and Senate that proposed excluding the BAH as income when determining nutrition assistance benefits. Sadly, despite vocal support from both Republicans and Democrats, these efforts were blocked. An effort to include this proposal as an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act also failed.

Congress must act immediately and in a manner that does not seek to correct this oversight by redirecting funds from other programs that support servicemembers and their families. The principle of leaving no one behind is deeply embedded in the ethos of the U.S. military. If Congress continues to ignore the problem of hunger among currently serving service members, we are surely leaving them behind.

Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which works to end hunger among people of all faiths in the United States and Israel.

Cristin Orr Shiffer is a senior adviser at Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit network supporting and empowering military families.

The Virginian-Pilot | July 10, 2016