Defense officials still struggle to get accurate data on the number of active-duty service members who are using food assistance programs, such as SNAP and WIC, according to government auditors.

And this lack of information could be affecting troops in need, auditors said.

Without more complete data, DoD won’t know the prevalence of need among service members, in order to effectively target support to these troops. More complete data could also help DoD decide whether it should assign "department-level responsibility" for monitoring food assistance and needs, according to the July 15 report from the Government Accountability Office. Currently, no office in DoD is monitoring food assistance needs, according to GAO.

The auditors recommend that DoD officials revise surveys of service members to collect and analyze more complete data. Defense officials agreed with that recommendation, in their response to the report.

GAO looked into various available data about military use of food assistance programs. They found:

  • In the continental U.S., 24 percent of students attending Department of Defense schools on military bases were eligible for free school meals, and another 21 percent were eligible for reduced-price meals.
  • Army Emergency Relief provided $2.3 million in food assistance to active-duty service members in calendar year 2015; and the Air Force Aid Society provided $300,000 in food assistance that year.
  • Active-duty service members used more than $21 million in SNAP benefits from September, 2014 through August, 2015 in commissaries. SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — was previously known as "food stamps" and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the GAO report didn’t include information on the number of active-duty service members involved in redeeming that $21 million in SNAP benefits at commissaries. Nor did it provide information about what percentage of active-duty commissary shoppers are using SNAP benefits. A commissary spokesman said the agency doesn’t track SNAP use usage separated by rank or status, such as active duty or reserve.

According to Census Bureau data from 2013, about 23,000 active-duty members had received SNAP benefits within the previous 12 months, but one of the caveats was that the data didn't exclude those who had received SNAP benefits before joining the military.

Commissary statistics provide only a portion of the picture, because some active-duty members and their families also shop outside the gates. DoD and USDA should share data about SNAP usage use, the auditors stated.

In the fiscal 2016 defense policy law bill, lawmakers included a provision addressing that sharing of data, but DoD doesn’t have a coordination effort underway to get the data, auditors stated.

It's not for lack of trying, DoD officials said, in their response to GAO.

They've been trying for several years to get this data from USDA, according to a June 24 letter in response to the GAO report, signed by Ronald T. Keohane, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy. The fiscal 2016 defense policy bill legislated that USDA would be allowed to disclose the information to DoD — but it doesn't mandate that USDA provide the data, Keohane stated.

The Defense Manpower Data Center has been in contact with USDA, trying to set up a data exchange agreement. "However, DMDC was unable to identify one source within the USDA to obtain the data," Keohane wrote.

The SNAP information is collected by each state. And SNAP is administered at the state level, "where interagency operability limitation between each state system and the USDA makes collecting participant data difficult," Keohane wrote in his response. He noted that the law doesn't require USDA to provide the data.

After Sept. 30, service members serving outside the United States and its territories will be eligible for the DoD Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA). Congress created the program in 2000 as an alternative to the SNAP program. To be eligible for FSSA, the household monthly gross income must be less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, based on household size.

But so few service members apply for — and qualify for — the FSSA, that the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) recommended in 2015 that the FSSA should be eliminated in areas where SNAP programs are available. In many cases, it’s easier for service members to qualify for SNAP benefits than to qualify for FSSA, according to the MCRMC. The commission stated that of the 8,486 FSSA applications from service members nationwide in fiscal 2013, 96.6 percent were denied, with only 188 active-duty members receiving FSSA benefits in calendar 2015; 224 in calendar year 2014; and 285 in calendar year 2013.   

The GAO noted that for example, in the San Diego area, an E-4 service member would have to have a minimum of nine people in the household to qualify for FSSA. To qualify for SNAP benefits there, the E-4 would have to have a household of at least seven people.

More people qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), because the income threshold is higher. That San Diego E-4 could qualify for WIC with a three-person household. WIC provides supplemental, nutrient-rich foods and nutrition education to low-income infants, children and women who are pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding.

The auditors found that a service member's income eligibility for most food assistance programs will vary based on the location and the requirements for the individual programs. In addition to Naval Base San Diego, they visited Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Hood, Texas; and Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Officials at those installations cited challenges affecting service members such as limited awareness of some programs, stigmas associated with receiving food assistance, and misconceptions about military compensation and the ability of service members to qualify for assistance.

At the four installations, auditors visited volunteer-run food pantries and food distribution sites of varying sizes. Not all track the number of individuals served, but the manager of one of the four food pantries that distributes food around Camp Pendleton said that operation alone serves about 400 to 500 military families a month.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.