Homeless and foraging for food, Navy veteran Tim Keefe said his condition “devolved into that of a cave man,” when he fell onto hard times because of a work-related injury after he left the service. Each month, he hitchhiked 25 miles each way to a food bank, where he could fill his backpack with enough food for two weeks.
“When you’ve gone a couple days without food, your whole being cries out for it in a desperation I can’t explain,” he said, the day before Veterans Day, testifying during a hearing about hunger among military and veterans before the the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations. Because of work requirement rules, he only qualified for three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Advocates urged lawmakers to take action to address problems of food insecurity in the military and veteran communities.
“Your leadership and that of the administration and agency officials is urgently needed to chart a different course,” said Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “Military and veteran families have been allowed to go hungry on your watch.
“Your inaction has allowed this situation to persist for years and to get worse over the course of the pandemic.”
MAZON has led efforts for nearly a decade to address these hunger problems, and has often been criticized or ignored, she said.
The subcommittee heard from a variety of witnesses, “to search for solutions to ensure no veteran or service member feels the sting of hunger,” said subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn. The Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over policies related to food, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Hayes said Department of Agriculture statistics indicate that on average, 1.2 million veterans participate in SNAP each year, but some estimates indicate that as many as 60 percent of eligible veterans don’t participate in the program. Food insecurity particularly affects veterans who have recently left the service, are lower ranking, or are in rural areas that have limited access to food, she said. “Their hunger can also be exacerbated by physical and mental health challenges, including service-related disabilities.”
She noted that according to USDA, 22,000 SNAP households included service members in 2019, and it’s likely that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as many military families face barriers accessing SNAP.
“No person should ever go hungry in America. However, it’s especially galling to see those who have dedicated their lives to serving our nation struggling to put food on the table,” Hayes said.
The issue is a complicated one, with many contributing factors, including the financial stresses caused by the military lifestyle that can spill over into life after service, and reluctance on the part of military and veteran families to admit they need help getting food because of a perceived stigma. The issues are different for currently serving military than they are for veterans. As lawmakers discussed solutions for ensuring no military or veteran family has to struggle to put food on the table, they also discussed the persistent lack of data about the scope of the problem, and there were differing views.
“I’m also concerned that veterans … are having trouble making ends meet,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., citing the need to help them make the transition. For food insecurity among the military, he said he wants to hear from the military, including senior enlisted members, about the scope of the problem among those currently serving. If it’s a rampant problem, he said, Congress can adjust pay levels. He said he tried to invite a Defense Department official to the hearing, but they didn’t agree to the invitation.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said hunger in military and veterans “is not a new issue,” and added that “the powers that be haven’t done anything about it. The Pentagon has known this for years, and yet they’ve not come up to the Hill and ask that we not count the housing allowance toward total income so that those people who are struggling could actually get SNAP. … and they haven’t been shaking the trees for better compensation for enlisted service men and women.
“We know there’s a problem. Anyone who implies there’s not a problem is ignoring reality” about hunger among veterans and military, McGovern said. “This is not a new revelation. We’ve known about this for a long, long time. The question is whether or not we’re going to do anything about it. ...
“… As we approach Veterans Day, let’s all resolve that by next year we will have done something. ... We can actually help make people’s lives better.”
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said he “takes a little issue” with Hubbard’s criticism that no one has tried to address the problem, noting that lawmakers tried to include a provision in the 2018 farm bill that would exclude $500 of BAH from the income calculations used to determine eligibility. Because MAZON and others objected to it, it was dropped. “Maybe it wasn’t enough, but it was something. … We certainly want to solve this problem. I’m committed to working with [other committees] to find a way to alleviate this problem.”
He noted that a congressionally-mandated report on food insecurity in the military has been delayed by DoD, and is now due by March 31, 2022.
Other lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., also expressed concern that little data is available on about the scope of the problem. MAZON’s Hubbard said the issue of data is an important one, and the federal government has not collected it, although they have the capacity to do it. Families can’t wait for more data, she said. “Families can’t eat another hunger study,” she said.
Congress should work with the administration to study and document the full scope of military hunger, and publish comprehensive data, Hubbard said, and Congress should reexamine the military pay levels, she said.
Needs of currently serving vs. veteran populations
Hubbard said MAZON’s proposal for a Basic Needs Allowance to help currently serving military families with lower income now has broad support in the House and Senate. “We need your support to get it across the finish line,” she told lawmakers.
Hubbard also said the administration needs to take executive action to ensure that the Basic Allowance for Housing isn’t counted as income in determining eligibility for federal food programs such as SNAP.
For military families, there are some root causes that contribute to financial insecurity, said Denise Hollywood, chief community and programs officer for Blue Star Families.
Those root causes include issues such as spouse unemployment, which is exacerbated by the lack of affordable child care; unreimbursed moving expenses; and out-of-pocket housing expenses. These can contribute to food insecurity, Hollywood said. “Financial stress and the stigma of seeking assistance often can be compounded” when the service member leaves the military, she said.
Solutions for military family financial resilience, and for destigmatizing the need for assistance, can help prevent veteran hunger downstream, she said.
A nurse who works for the Veterans Health Administration urged lawmakers to balance the need to address immediate food shortages with the need to address contributing factors to the food insecurity. Discussions with veterans indicate that the initial six to 12 months after separation is the time of high risk for food insecurity, said Nipa Kamdar, who has conducted several studies on food insecurity affecting veterans. She testified as a private citizen, not on behalf of the VHA.
She suggested that at the time of transition from the military, officials could help veterans register in the VHA so that they have access to health care and other support services such as social workers. Veterans should also be provided information about SNAP and encouraged to apply for the assistance, she said.
But there are also problems with SNAP rules, Keefe said.
After he left the Navy, Keefe suffered an injury at work, and went through two years of surgeries and therapy. His worker’s compensation through Department of Labor had run out, and he applied for SNAP assistance. He received three months of SNAP benefits, for $194 a month, but then his benefits were cut off, he said, because of work restrictions, even though the Department of Labor said he was medically unable to work.
The SNAP work restrictions have unintended consequences for veterans, he said. “I felt like there was a fissure that I fell through, a catch-22 that opened up in front of me and swallowed me up.
“Is laying down your life on the line enough work?”
In the year after his SNAP benefit ended, Keefe filed appeal after appeal, and his health suffered as he lost weight. “I had to add seven holes to the belt I was wearing to keep my pants up,” he said.
SNAP benefits would have gone a long way to improve his health, he said. After about a year of appealing the decision, he turned 50, aging out of the SNAP work restrictions, and began receiving the $194 monthly SNAP benefits, amounting to about $6.45 a day. As he was able to eat, it didn’t take long for his health and energy to improve, he said, and he began to address other areas of his life, and has returned to work.
“We need to raise awareness of other veterans who are not disabled but returning to society with the unique experience of having to adjust from a combat zone to everyday life,” Keefe said. “Surely we can feed them.
“When I was sworn into the Navy in Boston, I was ready and willing to give my life for this country. It seemed like during this time, I couldn’t even get a sandwich from them.”
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.