Here Is What Defense Needs to Do to Help Hungry Military (Inside Sources)
This article originally appeared on March 16, 2022 on Inside Sources.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mounting inflation. The lingering COVID pandemic. Our country’s monumental challenges touch everyone, but they present a unique set of pressures on active military families who struggle with hunger. The good news: Unlike solutions to myriad crises on the world stage, the answer to the problem of military hunger is clear, and the chance to start solving it is at hand.
That opportunity comes in the form of the 90-day review of “food security in the Force,” ordered late last year by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The review process can serve as a vehicle for policy fixes, awareness-raising and cooperation. Hunger in the military is real and it demands real action to end it. The time for another report that sits on a shelf is long past. The time to learn and act is now.
The military’s compensation policy has not kept pace with the changing needs and composition of our modern force, which faces rising costs of living — even higher now, due to inflation — widespread unemployment rates among military spouses due to frequent relocation, and a lack of affordable and accessible childcare.
For these reasons, most military families who live off-base or in privatized military housing receive an allowance to reduce their housing costs. This allowance is helpful, but because some government agencies treat it as income, it can make their families ineligible for federal food aid like free school meals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women’s Infants and Children Nutrition Program.
The Department of Defense review is ideally positioned to investigate this policy glitch and partner with other agencies and lawmakers to address it. For example, Defense can work with the Agriculture Department to urge Congress to follow the lead of the Internal Revenue Service and stop treating the housing allowance as income. Defense can also broadly interpret and implement the newly established Military Family Basic Needs Allowance in order to help as many struggling military families as possible. Ultimately, Congress must stop demanding such sacrifices from service members by enshrining the Basic Needs Allowance in laws such as the Farm Bill, which is about to be reauthorized.
Critics routinely blame food-insecure service members by accusing them of household mismanagement. The Pentagon itself has suggested that financial education would solve the problem of hunger faced by military families. This is at best misguided and at worst, insulting. If Defense uses the review process to educate the public, it will be telling these service members and families that they are not alone, and that the government will take care of those who serve.
We know that food pantries operate on or near every military base in the country, and the number of military families seeking food assistance has only increased in the last several years. While food pantries provide an important emergency response, they are not designed to address the long-term needs of military families.
The Defense Department should use the review to document the effect of hunger on mission readiness. Hunger is associated with the tragedy of military suicide and is a cause of attrition. It hampers efforts to bring in a high-value class of recruits — the children of military households. A 2021 survey conducted by National Military Family Association found that 36 percent of teens from military families worry about food insecurity and the effect it might have on their future enlistment.
Outside policy experts, including our own organization, are eager to advise and assist Defense as it addresses this long-overlooked problem. We are able to help in the establishment of an advisory body with key stakeholders from engaged military service organizations, our colleagues with expertise, representatives from other federal agencies and military family members with lived experience.
The review and announcement of its findings will boost morale among service members and their allies throughout government. They need Defense to take meaningful actions now to put an end to the preventable crisis of military hunger, and with a robust review as a guide, the fight is winnable.