Commentary

The surprising population left behind by SNAP? The military

Gabriel is no stranger to hunger. In fact, he and his fellow Marines at a California base regularly rely on nearby food pantries to help feed their families.

“I’m doing all I can and serving my country, and I have to worry about how I’m going to buy food?” he wonders. “We are protecting the Constitution of the United States, so shouldn’t the government make sure we can properly feed our families?”

Shockingly, Gabriel is far from alone. The sad fact is, military families are going hungry because many do not earn enough to put enough food on the table.

According to the Blue Star Families 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 7 percent of military family respondents indicated that someone in their household faced food insecurity in the past year, and 9 percent of military family respondents indicated that someone in their household had sought emergency food assistance. Meanwhile, Pentagon records show one-third of military children in Department of Defense-run U.S. schools qualified for free or reduced lunches in 2018-2019.

This is not a new problem: a 2016 Government Accounting Office report said active-duty families spent more than $21 million in SNAP benefits at military bases. We know there are food pantries and distribution programs on or near every single military base nationwide, further underscoring the extent of the crisis.

For nearly a decade, we at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, have been working with policymakers and military service organizations to address this crisis, and for nearly a decade, it has gone unaddressed.

We are deeply concerned that the ongoing pandemic has intensified the crisis. The COVID-19 Military Support Initiative Pain Points Poll showed that 5 percent of all respondents were unable to afford more than a week’s worth of food.

The federal government’s most important nutrition assistance program, SNAP (formerly food stamps), could provide military members a lifeline, the kind of vital cash assistance they need, but for a kind of cruel Catch-22: these families find their Basic Allowance for Housing is treated as income, putting them above the poverty line eligibility for food stamps (though the housing is not considered taxable).

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, ranking member Sen. Jack Reed and others who are currently negotiating the massive National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) now have an opportunity to address this crisis.

As policymakers debate the usual big-ticket NDAA items like weapons systems and military operations, they can also prioritize the most vital element of our national security: the men, women, and families who make great personal sacrifices in service to our country.

The version of NDAA that passed the House in July includes a modest and targeted allowance for struggling families — this would ensure that military families have the resources they need to survive and thrive. The provision was omitted from the Senate NDAA; Congress must include it in the final bill.

Providing this support for military families’ basic needs, including for household food purchases, will lead to better nutrition and improved health outcomes. And positive health outcomes for children in military families — who are more likely to serve in the military than children in non-military families — will mean that more future enlistees will be physically fit to serve.

Officials at the Pentagon, the White House, and in Congress have failed to address the painful reality that food pantries operate on or near almost every military base in this country, quietly providing emergency assistance to struggling military families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the gaping holes in our nation’s nutrition safety net, at a time when some policymakers are actively trying to dismantle the entire system. Even in the midst of this crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing its efforts to construct barriers to SNAP for people who don’t meet their ideological definition of “in need of support.” Before the pandemic, nearly 40 million Americans were facing hunger, and we now expect that number to be over 80 million. It has never been more urgent nor obvious that SNAP benefits must be accessible for all those in need.

There are unique financial challenges for those in the military, and particularly for junior enlisted and low-ranking service members with families. For instance, even before the pandemic, spousal unemployment and underemployment rates were exceptionally and chronically high. Military families must shoulder the burden of frequent and costly moves, lack of nearby family support, and limited access to affordable childcare. We also know that there is often an unspoken stigma associated with accepting government benefits, particularly among military ranks. Some service members are understandably resistant to ask for help because of the shame of their situation and the fear of retribution.

But in truth, food security among military families should be considered a matter of national security. Addressing this shameful problem would support our government’s utmost goals of mission readiness, retention, and recruitment. How can we expect our troops to be fully present if they are worried that their children are hungry? How can a service member focus on the mission at hand if they are concerned about providing the basic needs for their family?

The good news is that a solution is within reach, and our leaders have a window of opportunity to do the right thing. Frankly, their failing to do so would call into question their real commitment to our military families.

Abby J. Leibman is president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national organization based in Los Angeles.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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