Hunger Advocates: Military families Still Facing Food Insecurity (Scripps News)

Maritsa Georgiou
February 16, 2023

This piece originally appeared in Scripps News on February 16, 2023.

From food distribution events in San Diego, California to Staten Island, New York — no matter where you go, hunger advocates say you’ll find military families facing food insecurity because of what they call a bureaucratic oversight.

“Huge, it’s a huge thing that I have to worry about every month, said Sara, a military wife.

“You’re constantly looking at how many fruits and vegetables can I realistically purchase in a week or two weeks?” said Lisa Javenar, a military wife.

“I really do think this was initially an oversight. And I think this sort of economic forces over time. I think most Americans would be surprised to find out that 24% of all active-duty service members have experienced some level of food insecurity in 2020 and 2021,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

It comes down to what’s known as BAH or Basic Allowance for Housing. Those payments to members of the military offset the cost of off-base housing. It’s not counted as income by the IRS or some federal assistance programs.

But it is counted as income in the eligibility formula for SNAP benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So on paper, families appear to have more money than they actually do.

“The way in which the statutes are written around SNAP, is that all of your income is included to determine your eligibility except, and then there’s a long list of exceptions. So you would have needed someone in Congress to have thought, ‘oh, wait, the military could be eligible for this’,” said Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON.

It’s help many military families say they could desperately use.

“It would definitely mean I could maybe stop scrimping, pinching every penny,” said Sara.

Think it’s an easy fix? So did Leibman, when it first came on her radar at a hunger conference more than 10 years ago. She met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers SNAP.

“We called the general counsel that in that meeting, got the general counsel in line to say, and said, ‘why can’t we just do this? ‘What’s the problem?’ And she said, ‘because it’s a statutory requirement.’ And that means Congress must amend the statute,” Leibman said.

And Congress has tried multiple times — without success.

Leibman testified in a House subcommittee hearing seven years ago. Seven years of military families struggling to put food on the table — and no fix.

“I can remember this meeting very clearly with our advocacy team and said, ‘what is it we really want? What is the straightforward goal that we have?’ Getting rid of the BAH as income. Okay, let’s just push it. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re going to ask for. And Senator Duckworth was right there with us. And that makes a huge difference,” Leibman said.

Scripps News first interviewed Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski about this last May. Later in the year, we met up with Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a military food pantry in New York.

“They shouldn’t have to be struggling like this,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand signed on to a bill introduced by Duckworth and Murkowski to fix the bureaucratic mix up. Now, they’re trying again.

Thursday, Duckworth and more than a dozen cosponsors introduced yet another bill which MAZON helped craft. It’s straightforward and directly aimed at the statutory language of the SNAP program.

“It brings that program back in line with other federal programs like the IRS, or the WIC programs, which do not consider your basic allowance for housing as income. And so this, this actually is a nice simple fix. It takes the onus off of DOD, it puts it back, because this is a hunger issue, back within the Department of Agriculture and the SNAP program. And we will be able to fix this problem permanently as opposed to something that could potentially sunset,” Duckworth said.

SCRIPPS NEWS’ MARITSA GEORGIOU: Do you feel confident that this straightforward bill will get through this time?

SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: I really do. We worked out a lot of the misconceptions through the NDA process for the last two years. And so now the folks, you know, I have Republicans who voted to do this in the past, and I can come back to them and say, ‘okay, now let’s fix the problem permanently, so that we don’t have our military men and women worried about whether or not their families are going to eat tonight.’

And more broadly, Duckworth wants to look at military pay as a whole because she says the nature of the military has changed.

“So many of the men and women at all levels at all ranks are actually older, they’re actually married, they actually have children. And that puts the payscale in a place where it just can’t quite cover the needs of our fair on military families and we have to fix that problem,” Duckworth said.

Until then, struggling military families keep lining up at food pantry events like the one in San Diego, hoping the latest attempt to help them get SNAP benefits finally sticks.