Lawmakers: Expand Federal Aid for Hungry Troops (Roll Call)

John M. Donnelly
March 27, 2023

This piece originally appeared in Roll Call on March 27, 2023.

House members from both parties have signed on to two bills filed late last week aimed at expanding federal aid to hungry American troops and their families, and a similar push is underway in the Senate.

The legislative moves come as Pentagon figures show some 286,800 personnel in the active-duty force — or nearly one in four military servicemembers — experience “low food security.” Of those, an estimated 120,000 are faced with “very low food security,” meaning they periodically eat less, miss meals or lose weight, the department has found.

The recently filed bills, both sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., would rewrite the rules for federal assistance to military personnel.

One House measure (HR 1764) would alter a Pentagon income supplement called the basic needs allowance. The other House bill (HR 1763), would change the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In both programs, housing allowances for military personnel, which can amount to thousands of dollars per year, are counted as income. As a result, some experts say, thousands of troops are unable to qualify for either Pentagon or SNAP aid. The newly filed House bills would exclude housing payments from the income calculations.

The Pentagon program will come up in the debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, while the SNAP program will be part of this year’s Farm Bill debate.

Senate legislation

The Pentagon’s basic needs allowance is helping only .08 percent of the estimated number of food-insecure military families, CQ Roll Call disclosed in January.

Moreover, only about 1.8 percent of those families receive SNAP, and even when private aid is included, just 14 percent are getting help, according to a January RAND Corporation report.

“It’s unconscionable to think that there are those who serve our nation who go hungry,” Panetta said in a statement. “Moreover, it’s absolutely unacceptable that they and their families are unable to access government food programs just because of a bureaucratic calculation.”

In the Senate, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski are leading a similarly bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators who back a bill (S 497) that would make the change in the SNAP program.

Many of these same senators support changing the Pentagon program rule in the same way. But Duckworth said in a February interview that she believes if SNAP is fixed, then it will obviate the need for separate Defense Department aid.

NDAA debate

Most of these same lawmakers in both chambers have tried before to change the rules of the Pentagon’s basic needs allowance.

The House Armed Services Committee has for two years in a row written an NDAA that excludes housing allowances from income calculations for the basic needs allowance. But, both times, the Senate Armed Services Committee declined to go along in conference, according to aides and antihunger advocates.

The odds may be better for the change to occur this year in either the basic needs allowance or SNAP — or perhaps both.

That is because it is increasingly apparent that the programs as currently written are only helping a small fraction of military families suffering from food insecurity.

At the same time, with inflation continuing to grow at a rate over 6 percent and military spouses still having trouble getting and keeping jobs amid repeated relocations, lower-ranking enlisted personnel with families are likely to continue to have trouble feeding their families without expanded aid, experts said.

“Military hunger represents a threat to readiness, retention, and recruitment for our Armed Forces, and it is long past time for Congress to take action” said Abby J. Leibman, president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, in a statement.

SNAP targeted

In the House, Panetta is supported in his proposal to change the Pentagon basic needs allowance by several Republicans. These include Don Bacon of Nebraska, a former Air Force officer who has been named the chairman of a special new Armed Services panel focusing on quality of life for military personnel, as well as Blake D. Moore of Utah and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.

Also co-sponsoring the basic needs allowance change are several Democrats: Marilyn Strickland of Washington state, and Californians Sara Jacobs and Mike Levin.

Concurrently, McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, signed on as an original co-sponsor of the proposal to revise the SNAP income calculations.

SNAP payments that were bolstered during the pandemic are being discontinued in most states, affecting millions of families. And some congressional Republicans have talked about scaling back SNAP benefits by expanding work requirements as conservatives look to reduce federal spending.

“It’s these types of commonsense bipartisan bills in Congress that need to get passed and signed into law to insure the health and wellbeing of our service members and their families who contribute so much to the security of our nation,” Panetta said.