Congress Must Provide Food Security for Military Families

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — We often hear that Congress never gets anything done. However, there’s at least one piece of legislation that Congress has passed reliably for over fifty years: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets policies and priorities for our nation’s military. The reason for this unbroken record is simple: Providing for our country’s defense is an essential function of our federal government.

During annual deliberation of this massive piece of legislation, Congress understandably devotes much of its attention to high profile issues such as major weapons systems, cybersecurity and military operations. But it’s essential that they also remember the most vital element of our national security – the men and women who serve in our military. By including a basic-needs allowance for military families in this year’s NDAA, they will ensure that all military families can put healthy food on the table.

For hungry military families, the need has never been greater.

For many Americans, it can be hard to believe that military families struggle with food insecurity, but the evidence is incontrovertible.

According to Pentagon records obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request, data shows that during the 2018-19 school year, one third of military children at DoD-run schools in the U.S. were eligible for free or reduced lunch. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, 65 percent were eligible.

Not coincidentally, there is a food pantry operating on or near every single military installation in the United States, including San Diego, helping put food on the tables of American military families.

When asked if she ever worried about being able to buy groceries, Mary, a military spouse, responded, “We ran out all the time when the kids were little. The last week of the month we were down to the peanut butter and bread and powdered milk.”

Another military spouse, Michelle, recalled that “Yes, as an E1 (junior enlisted) with a baby, I would buy huge cans of ravioli knowing money would run out before next payday. That way I always knew I had those in the back of the cupboard.”

As leaders of organizations that address hunger and work with military families, we hear often from service members who struggle to make ends meet. Many ask to keep their identities private because of pervasive stigma that still surrounds this issue.

A civilian family that found itself in Michelle’s circumstances might seek help through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.) However, most military families aren’t eligible for SNAP due to an unintended barrier in the law.

Military families residing off base or in privatized military housing receive a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) to cover housing costs. This allowance does not get treated as income in determining eligibility for most federal assistance programs but does get counted as income when calculating eligibility for SNAP. As a result, BAH often disqualifies service members from SNAP eligibility, even though these junior enlisted members often struggle to meet their basic needs. This is especially true in high cost of living areas, where BAH often doesn’t fully cover housing costs.

This legal technicality forces some military families to make impossible choices between feeding their families or paying for other necessities like gas or electricity— all while serving our country.

“We have the only job where we have to give up our lives to protect the Constitution of the United States,” one service member told us. “So shouldn’t the government make sure we can properly feed our families?”

The good news is that a solution is within reach.

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Military Family Association have proposed establishing a Military Family Basic Needs Allowance to address this longstanding issue. The House NDAA bill includes this provision, which would help ensure that military families can receive critical assistance to meet their basic needs.

With a Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, all service members with base pay at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Line would automatically be notified of their eligibility for a modest supplement to their base pay, with the BAH excluded as income in calculating eligibility. Working closely with congressional allies including Representative Susan Davis (D-San Diego) and Senator Tammy Duckworth (IL), we are on track to rectify the technicality in the law and bridge the gap for service members who struggle to feed themselves and their families. Representative Davis has led the Congressional effort to address this issue over the past several years and her leadership as a champion for military families deserves special recognition.

As this year’s NDAA advances, Congress has a window of opportunity to do the right thing.

While DOD continues to turn its back on its lowest-earning military service members, Congress must focus on passing a bill that would provide much-needed assistance to low-income military families. This would help address the long-overlooked problem of military family food insecurity and would enable servicemembers’ maximum readiness in defending the nation.

The system designed to support our servicemembers is falling short. Instead of further facilitating a national disgrace, let’s close this unintended loophole to assistance for military families and ensure that no one goes hungry in service to our country.

*Abby J. Leibman is the President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Kelly Hruska is the Government Relations Director of National Military Family Association