Josh Protas on The Leading Voices in Food Podcast

May 11, 2021

MAZON is pleased to partner with the Leading Voices in Food podcast, which is produced by the World Food Policy Center at Duke University, on a podcast series. This episode features Josh Protas in a discussion about U.S. military families and veterans going hungry.

Interview Transcript:

So, let’s dive in and begin by talking about hunger and food insecurity in military families. So, when did you first learn about the phenomenon in this population?

So, let’s just start by recognizing how shocking it is to talk about military families and food insecurity in the same sentence. It’s remarkable that we even have to have this conversation. MAZON learned about these issues about a decade ago. We started to hear from a number of our partner agencies, food banks and food pantries around the country about an uptick in the number of military families that they were seeing coming, really out of desperation, for emergency assistance. Around that time also, there was a session at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference on military and veteran food insecurity and MAZON’S President and CEO, Abby Leibman and Mia Hubbard, our Vice President of Programs, were at that session and heard about some of the issues that came up. And then people left the session and that was it. Food pantries and food banks were doing important work, serving military families with emergency assistance, but there were some policy issues that were being ignored. And MAZON started looking into these issues to understand what was going on and recognized that there are some separate, and somewhat related issues, for currently serving military families and then the veteran population as well. For the currently serving military families there is actually a barrier that still exists, that makes it more difficult for them to qualify for needed assistance from the SNAP program.

You know, you’re right. It’s discouraging and depressing that this problem exists, but of course it exists in such a widespread manner, that it’s all over. So, what are the challenges and the circumstances that military families face, that can lead to food insecurity in the first place? I mean, I assume not having enough money is the biggest problem, but what else?

So, not having enough money is part of the picture. I think some historical perspective is important here because the composition of our armed forces has changed. Historically it was single individuals who enlisted in the military, and single men really, And the housing for those single men was primarily on-base housing. The composition of our military has changed over time and also the way that we house our troops has changed. So, we have many more military families that serve. It’s not just the individual, but it’s a spouse and children that serve with them in a way. And at the same time that that’s been happening, the majority of our military housing has moved to either off-base, or privatized housing. The reason that this is an issue is because those who live off-base, or in privatized housing receive a basic allowance for housing benefit from the military. The issue around food insecurity is that that BAH, the Basic Allowance for Housing, which is not treated as income for federal income tax purposes and for determining the eligibility for most federal assistance programs, the BAH is treated as income for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And as a result, when you take the base pay, which is often low for a junior enlisted service member and you add on top of that their BAH, it makes them ineligible to qualify for SNAP. And the added complications for military families are exceptionally high rates of spousal unemployment. Before the pandemic, the rates were hovering around 22 to 24% and that didn’t even take into account underemployment, or employment that was below professional training. Since the pandemic, those rates have been spiking. Close to a third of military spouses that want to work are unemployed. And so, when you just have a single source of income, that low rate of base pay for junior enlisted personnel, it can be really tough to make ends meet.

Well, what a remarkable set of challenges those families face and you can see why food insecurity would be such a big problem. So, can you tell us how MAZON is addressing this issue?

MAZON has really focused on the policy challenges and policy solutions that can make a difference around military food insecurity. Trying to remove that barrier to federal program has been the core of that work. We’ve approached it on a number of different fronts, both in the Obama administration and in the Trump administration and now in the Biden administration. We’ve been pushing for administrative changes to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exclude the BAH as counted income, so to remove that barrier to access SNAP for military families that really need that help. We’ve run into a number of obstacles through that administrative course of action, so we’ve also been addressing this legislatively and have pushed for proposals in the farm bill process. And most recently, the farm bill that was signed into law in 2018, unfortunately did not include a fix for this. As a result, we’ve gone through the National Defense Authorization Act, which is must-pass annual legislation. MAZON was instrumental in crafting a proposal that would be a bit of a workaround. It wouldn’t address SNAP specifically, but the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, which we helped to write as a provision, is part of the NDAA process that would give some added cash assistance to junior enlisted personnel whose households are at, or below 130% of the federal poverty level. We’ve had bipartisan support for this provision. It was included in the House version of the NDAA bills the past two years. Unfortunately, there’s been some Pentagon opposition to this and the Senate did not include the provision in their version of the bill and it has not been signed into law yet. So, we’re continuing to push for that in the current NDAA process and also working on engaging the administration. We’ve met with the First Lady’s senior staff and staff from the Domestic Policy Council and National Security Council. The First Lady has re-instituted the Joining Forces initiative to focus on military families and their unique needs and challenges. So, we’re hopeful that there’s a growing awareness about this issue and a growing commitment to take some common sense targeted actions to really help those who are serving our country, to make sure that they never have to struggle to put food on the table.

I’m impressed with how sophisticated and persistent your policy efforts have been in both on the administrative and legislative fronts. Are you optimistic that things will eventually change?

I’ve been working on this issue personally for the past eight years. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into it. It’s been a major area of work for MAZON, so, I’ll feel comfortable and comforted when we get it done. I don’t want to get too optimistic. This issue is common sense, as it is to address it has been so stubborn, finally get resolved. So, I don’t want to be complacent at all. There are some reasons to be more optimistic that we’ll be able to push this further. Certainly the change in the Senate, the new administration, signal some better opportunities, so I’m hopeful on that front.

Now, have been some recent stories about food pantries and other charitable organizations providing emergency relief to military families. And this is something you alluded to earlier. How adequately, do you think, they’re addressing the issue?

So, the food pantries and food banks that are addressing this issue are really doing that at a surface level and they’re doing very important work to respond to emergency needs. But for military hunger and for hunger in this country, in general, the charitable sector does not have the capacity nor was it set up to have the capacity, to fully address food insecurity issues in this country. Only the federal government has that capacity, has the resources, has the breadth and leadership to really address hunger. And we need policy solutions to deal with this. There are food pantries operating on, or near, almost every single military base in this country and there’s no reason that should happen. Those who are serving our country bravely should never have to worry about meeting their basic needs. They should be paid adequately and they should be able to access resources in federal programs that are available, to provide some extra assistance if they need it. So, turning to a food pantry out of desperation shouldn’t be a routine case. The pantries that are operating near these bases are serving the same families month in, month out, hundreds, sometimes thousands of families, at different installations. And that shouldn’t happen. We should be able to make sure that those households, either get additional pay to make sure that they can meet their basic needs, or able to get benefits like SNAP, so that they don’t have to turn to the charitable sector. And food pantries are already spread thin. They can’t pick up any more slack. Certainly the needs have been spiking because of COVID-19 and the economic downturn. Our federal government needs to step up. The ARP that recently was signed into law is a huge step forward with the, SNAP benefits, but that’s time limited and eventually that will expire, so more robust support for our federal safety net programs is critical. And certainly for military families, we need to remove those barriers and fill that gap.

You’ve been speaking, in a very detailed way, about food insecurity in military families. What is the scope of the problem among America’s veterans?

Great question. And the issue for veterans is different than for currently serving families, but related. So, MAZON has been working on this issue, veteran food insecurity, for a number of years as well. We held the first ever Congressional Briefing on veteran food insecurity back in 2015 and invited leadership from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veterans Affairs to join us. And we learned, at that time, that the VA system was not doing food insecurity screenings as a standard practice. And if you’re not asking the question and you’re not screening to see who might be struggling, then you can’t address the problem. So at that time, MAZON pushed really hard to get the VA system to start asking the questions, to start doing the food insecurity screenings that were so critical to identify those who are at risk in order to be able to connect them with available help. Really pleased to say that couple of years ago now, VA system has started doing these food insecurity screenings which has been an enormous step forward. The screenings that they were doing were just a single question, which probably were insufficient for fully capturing the scope of the problem and identifying all who might be at risk. It looks like the VA system is moving towards a question panel as part of its Clinical Reminder system, the hunger vital signs, which is a validated instrument that includes two questions to really identify who may be at risk of food insecurity and the severity of that food insecurity. Where there’s a need now is connecting those veterans who are at risk of food insecurity with programs like SNAP and that’s not happening as a routine practice through the VA system. And there’s also a need to connect veterans who do not receive care and services through the VA system with resources like SNAP.

MAZON has been working with the VA. We assigned a memorandum of agreement with the VA system this past year and we’ve also worked with veterans service organizational partners to create resources and trainings. We created an online training course with the PsychArmor Institute, aimed at service providers who work with veterans to make them better aware of food insecurity among the veteran population. Some of the unique challenges, including shame and stigma that might make veterans reluctant to seek help and to direct them towards their state’s SNAP agency, so that those who might be struggling in resources that they’re eligible for and entitled to. A recent study about veterans who are food insecure, found that of those who are eligible for SNAP, only about one in three actually participate in the program. So, that means that two thirds of veterans who are dealing with food insecurity, are eligible for SNAP, are leaving those benefits on the table and are struggling needlessly. So, there’s a real need to help close that SNAP gap for veterans. It’s the right thing to do. It will help support better health. It’ll realize long-term healthcare savings and it’ll help those veterans who are trying to support their families, better able to take care of them.