MAZON Testifies Before U.S. House Committee On Veterans’ Affairs, Urges Congress To Address Veteran Hunger As National Priority

January 9, 2020

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2020 — MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger testified before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity today, cautioning that veteran hunger should be considered a national security issue, and far too many veterans go hungry without the help they need and are entitled to from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The hearing, “Reviewing the Availability of Resources to Address Veteran Hunger,” provided an opportunity for MAZON to shed light on the lack of food and nutrition support for tens of thousands of veterans who struggle with food insecurity, offer policy recommendations to solve this long-overlooked, yet solvable problem, and highlight ways that USDA, VA and Congress must play a bigger role in addressing this national crisis.

Josh Protas, Vice President of Public Policy for MAZON, provided troubling accounts of the severity of veteran hunger in America, including harrowing testimony of a formerly food insecure veteran from Maine, Tim Keefe, who had to resort to catching and eating squirrels as food.

Protas said, “For people like Tim, SNAP can literally save lives.” Noting that SNAP helps about 1.3 million low-income veterans, he stated, “Nearly two thirds of all veterans who struggle with hunger and are eligible for SNAP are not currently enrolled. Nobody, and certainly no veteran like Tim, should ever be forced to ask, ‘What do I eat?’ because they can’t get the help they need from the country they fought to protect. Allowing veterans to struggle with hunger after great personal sacrifices in service to our nation is shameful, insulting, unnecessary, and costly. Indeed, it is unconscionable.”

For nearly a decade, MAZON has prioritized food insecurity among veterans and military families, calling on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Defense (DoD) to address these critical issues.

During the hearing, Protas called on Congress and federal agencies to prioritize veteran hunger and noted that the issue is being worsened by the “harmful impact of administrative changes to SNAP promulgated by the current Administration that are condoned and even celebrated by some Members of Congress. In the past year, we have seen unprecedented administrative attacks that would restrict and cut SNAP for millions of Americans, including veterans – proposals that will increase hunger and hardship for struggling veterans.”

Protas testified in support of specific policy recommendations, including:

    • Protect and improve SNAP by supporting USDA’s withdrawal of the three harmful proposals that would strip SNAP benefits for millions of Americans, including veterans
    • Connect veterans to SNAP by adopting the validated two-question Hunger Vital Signs screening tool to more accurately identify all veterans who are at risk of food insecurity. Additionally, the VA should require and provide on-site SNAP eligibility and application assistance.
    • Share nutrition assistance information during transition from military service by mandating that VA integrate materials about programs like SNAP as part of the Transition Assistance Program and other veteran outreach efforts.
    • Listen to veterans by holding a follow-up hearing to hear about real, lived experiences with food insecurity.

Protas also asked Congress “to address the related issue of hunger among currently serving military families that has been ignored for too long. MAZON believes this is an urgent matter of national security, military readiness, retention, and recruitment.”

Chief among bipartisan recommendations cited by the committee was the need for data, specifically for USDA to gather data on veteran hunger to better understand the level and severity of the problem. Committee debate also included the role of state flexibilities to seek waivers from harsh time limits for SNAP eligibility, root causes of hunger, stigma associated with food insecurity, the veteran SNAP participation gap, and the impact of recent administrative rule changes on special veteran populations including women, students, and individuals living in rural and remote areas.

Committee Chairman Mike Levin (D-CA-49) requested that USDA work with VA to provide data on veteran hunger before moving forward with planned administrative actions on SNAP and underscored the importance of hearing from veterans. He rebuked USDA representatives for leaving the hearing early and said, “It doesn’t take an act of congress to pick up the phone, to communicate, to speak with one another—it just takes a level of care and concern. We set the highest expectations of our military to serve our country, and we need to set equally high expectations of ourselves to serve them. We shouldn’t be allowing a single veteran in need to go hungry — ever. If we want to serve veterans, we have to start by making sure they are not hungry. This really isn’t that hard.”

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice (D-NY-04) levied a blistering accusation, scolding administration officials for supporting “humiliating” policies that “take food away from men and women who wore the uniform of this country.” Calling the policies “unAmerican and inhumane,” she said, “This is disgusting. You’re talking about men and women who wore the uniform of this country not being able to get food.”

Ranking Member Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL-12) stated, “We need more answers. We need the data for our veterans. No veteran should go hungry — all of us should agree on that. We need to explore this even more and we need to think long term.”

Congressman Chris Pappas (D-NH-01) supported seeking solutions to end veteran hunger and said, “I think it is outrageous that USDA is moving forward with these draconian rules that target people who are already struggling day to day.”

Reflecting on the humanitarian approach needed, Dr. Thomas O’Toole, Senior Medical Advisor at Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said, “Having enough to eat is a basic human need, and in this country, no one should be going without food. It is intimately linked to health and the ability to prevent and manage a variety of health conditions, not the least of which include mental health and suicide risk. There is more we can and will do to decrease veteran hunger.”

Congressman Andy Barr (R-KY-06) said, “We shouldn’t have a single veteran who is food insecure.”

Congressman Dan Meuser (R-PA-09) added, “No veteran should go hungry. We need to do a better job in ensuring that occurs.”

In closing, Chairman Levin pledged bipartisan support and said, “We are voting on a war powers resolution later today, and I’m thinking of the men and women of extraordinary character who are serving this country and sacrificing for our national security, and the very least we can do is provide our military families and our veterans with food security—it’s the very least we can do.”

In addition to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, witnesses included representatives from the Veterans Health Administration at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as Blue Star Families, and Feeding San Diego.

The hearing was livestreamed via the House Veterans Affairs Committee YouTube page and can be viewed on C-SPAN. MAZON’s testimony can be downloaded here.