Defense Bill Leaves Too Many Military Families Behind The Enemy Lines of Hunger

December 15, 2021

Moments ago, the U.S. Senate passed a pared-down version of the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a first step toward closing gaps in our social safety net through which currently-serving military families have been allowed to fall. While the House of Representatives initially rose to the challenge and passed the full provision in September that excluded any housing allowances from the way income-based benefits are calculated, the updated ‘consensus’ version of the bill fell short of providing a long-term solution to this long-overlooked crisis.

For nearly a decade, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has led national efforts to expose the issue of food insecurity among military families and urge lawmakers to address the problem, publishing a comprehensive report earlier this year to detail the complex issue and outline the most meaningful policy solutions. MAZON devised the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, working with key members of Congress to craft and introduce the legislation, which was deliberately designed to provide military families with temporary and targeted support in a streamlined and effective manner. In a letter organized by MAZON earlier this fall, over 20 military service organizations endorsed this comprehensive solution to addressing military hunger in this year’s NDAA. Last week, MAZON issued a statement outlining how the pared-down NDAA bill falls short of the full relief needed to provide support for the thousands of hungry military families across the country.

Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, issued the following statement upon today’s Senate vote, emphasizing the remaining work that lies ahead:

“While some help is better than no help, Congress’s decision to effectively abandon thousands of military families who face chronic food insecurity is unacceptable. Nevertheless, today’s NDAA passage in the Senate marks the first time that both chambers of Congress have at least sought to use their legislative authority to provide systemic support for hungry military families, and we are grateful to champions like Senator Tammy Duckworth for ensuring that the NDAA acknowledges this need by establishing a basic needs allowance for low-income military families. 

Ultimately, however, Congress chose a path that helps far too few military families — serving only a fraction of the thousands of hungry military families who would directly benefit under our original Military Family Basic Needs Allowance provision that passed the House earlier this year.

Relying on the charitable sector to fill the gaps in military families’ basic needs is not only untenable, it’s an abdication of Congress’s sworn duty. Congress should be striving to make food pantries obsolete by closing gaps in federal safety net programs that have allowed tens of thousands of military families to suffer needlessly from hunger. Instead — as MAZON outlined in our military hunger report — food banks operate on or near every military base in the country, serving thousands of military families every day.

The problem is complex, but our solutions are simple. And fortunately, there are still ways that President Biden and his Administration can rectify the compromised bill’s shortcomings through executive action. In the short term, it is vital that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin use the authority granted to him in this bill to enable as many military families as possible to receive the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, recognizing that military hunger does not only exist in “high cost of living areas.” It is also critical for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to heed MAZON’s advice by removing barriers to federal nutrition programs like SNAP, which currently treat military families differently than civilians.

MAZON is eager and ready to work with the Department of Defense and military service organizations to create, implement, and strengthen the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, at the same time seeking to remove barriers in nutrition programs that persist for military families. Every person in this country — especially our troops and their families — deserves the basic dignity of being able to put nutritious food on the table.”