There’s scant information on how widespread the problem of hunger is among currently serving military families and veteran families, but there are some actions that could help those who are struggling to put food on the table, advocates told lawmakers.

One such suggestion is providing automatic SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to service members in the lower ranks as they separate from the military, said Colleen Heflin, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University. She and other advocates participated in a roundtable discussion of hunger in the military and veteran communities before the House Rules Committee.

They discussed the stigma in asking for help that’s perceived by service members, veterans and their families; difficulties families face in qualifying for assistance; and lack of real data to quantify the extent of the problem.

“Across America today, there are spouses and children of service members who may not know where their next meal is coming from,” said Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, D-Mass. “And for too many men and women who served our nation and are back in the civilian community, they and their families are struggling to put food on the table.

“Too often, hunger is hidden among these communities. Service members are taught to make good with what they have. Numbers are hard to come by, because those who serve don’t want to risk their futures by coming forward, or struggle to ask for help.”

McGovern called the situation “a national outrage.” He and other lawmakers asked for suggestions from the advocates in addressing the issue.

There’s a clear need for more data about the problem, advocates said. “We suffer from a lack of systematic information about the level of food insecurity among active-duty members. This means we can’t identify and focus on the pockets of where it be higher than others,” said Heflin.

“If DoD collected systematic information and made it available on food insecurity and food assistance participation, this would identify the problem,” Heflin.

Some limited information has been available in recent surveys. For example, 14 percent of active-duty enlisted family member respondents to the online 2020 Blue Star Family Lifestyle Survey said they had food insecurity within the past 12 months, according to the organization’s CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet. That 14 percent isn’t necessarily representative of the entire population — it’s 251 people out of the 1,757 who identified themselves as active-duty enlisted family members in the online survey. The survey was available online from September 2020 to October 2020, so the responses also reflected pandemic experiences.

The percentage of those experiencing food insecurity was highest in the E1-E4 respondents, at 29 percent — 46 people out of 158 in the Blue Star Family survey. Food insecurity reports weren’t limited to junior enlisted families: 16 percent of E5-E6 family respondents, and 8 percent of senior enlisted, reported low or very low food security. The Blue Star Family survey “is an essential part of what we know, but it can’t be as comprehensive as what our government could do,” said Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. She suggested calling on the Government Accountability Office to provide comprehensive, updated data on food insecurity among veteran and military families, and said the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture should collaborate and share data and information. The issue has been a priority for MAZON for nearly 10 years.

Leibman also suggested reexamining the pay levels in the military.

Kathy Roth-Douquet said the military lifestyle of frequent permanent change of station moves contributes to the financial insecurity of military families, with spouse unemployment, the lack of affordable child care, high out-of-pocket housing expenses, and other issues. Too many families are forced to make the impossible choice between affordable housing and more expensive housing in safe areas with school districts that provide a quality education for their children, she said.

Thus, Roth-Douquet offered up one solution that would address a number of financial issues with military families: Slowing down the rate of PCS moves, or allowing for some predictability and control over service members’ careers. “There’s lots of evidence this would increase financial security and would save [the government] those high moving costs,” she said.

Two other suggestions deal with service members’ allowances.

• The Basic Allowance for Housing shouldn’t be counted as income when determining a military family’s eligibility for federal nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, formerly referred to as food stamps, said Abby Leibman. This has long been an issue for military families, she said. While she believes U.S. Department of Agriculture could make the change, it may require a change in law, she said.

• Leibman and other advocates have been pushing for a military basic needs allowance, which has been proposed in Congress for the last several years. It’s part of the proposed Military Hunger Prevention Act being considered now by lawmakers, and would provide extra money for groceries for low-income military families. It would create an allowance that would supplement troops with a household income of less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line, which varies by family size.

Veterans’ food insecurity and a transitional SNAP benefit?

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report stated that 11 percent of veteran households were food insecure in the 2015-2019 period, said Syracuse’s Heflin. Food insecurity is higher among female veterans, minority veterans and disabled veterans, she said. There’s increased likelihood of hardship and food insecurity after separation from the military, she said, and SNAP participation among veterans is 10 percent higher in the first year after leaving the military than for the general veteran population.

She proposes creating an automatic transitional SNAP benefit for about six months for all families leaving the military, limiting those eligible to perhaps those in pay grades of up to E4 or E6, she said.

Based on the 2019 average SNAP household benefit of $258 a month, if there were 100,000 service members separating from the military a year within that general pay band, and the benefits continued for six months, it would cost about $154 million a year in taxpayer dollars, Heflin said.

It reduces the stigma because everyone would qualify, she said. “It’s a small dollar item that could really help service members during this critical transition period.” It would help provide some extra dollars as they establish themselves, and serve as an extra benefit to thank them for their service, she said. It might also make them more likely to apply for SNAP benefits if needed in the future

Heflin also suggested a categorical eligibility for SNAP benefits among different disability programs, for example, veterans with high levels of service-connected disabilities.

It appears that when programs are built specifically for veterans, the veterans are more accepting of the services, said Chad Morrison, CEO of the Mountaineer Food Bank in West Virginia. “They don’t want to take away from someone else, but when it’s built for them, there’s less of a stigma, and they’re much more accepting.” He said he’s found that with their food distribution program, which participates in a program that provides a monthly food box for veterans and households of veterans.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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