A Hungry Thanksgiving For Too Many Military Families

Americans can agree on the terrible hypocrisy of asking men and women to serve, even as we fail to ensure that their families have enough to eat.

Military compensation policy has not adequately kept pace with the changing needs or rising cost of living, meaning many serving in the military—especially low-ranking, junior-enlisted servicemembers with families—find themselves in a situation of financial hardship where they cannot afford enough food. (Flickr)

Every year, with the approach of Thanksgiving, many of our communities lift up the plight of those who do not have enough to eat, reminding us all that in this land of plenty, too many of us are facing food insecurity. This year will be no exception, and among the many who face hunger, I am still struck by those whose struggles are left out of the spotlight. For over nine years, I have raised concerns about hunger among our military families—brave men and women to whom we all owe an enormous debt, who sacrifice so much but whose needs have been ignored by those with the power to make this a real Thanksgiving for them.

As we rush to supermarkets and plan our holiday meals, one simple, stunning fact should give us all pause: Tens of thousands of America’s military families don’t know if they’ll have enough to eat tomorrow, much less on Thanksgiving.

Food pantries quietly operate on or near every military base in America—four at Camp Pendleton alone—because the families of those serving our country all too often face another battle at home in the form of food insecurity.

There is no reason military families should go hungry. Earlier this month, Congress heard testimony from MAZON: A Jewish Response To Hunger (where I’m president and CEO) on the pervasiveness of this issue and our proposed solutions to fix it; we called on lawmakers, the Biden administration, and all relevant federal agencies to do everything within their considerable power to resolve this issue.

Pounding the Pavement for Nearly a Decade

MAZON has led national efforts to address military hunger for nearly a decade and earlier this year, we published “Hungry in the Military: Food Insecurity Among Military Families in the U.S.,” the first report of its kind, outlining comprehensive ways that policymakers and advocates alike must approach the issue.

And yet, even as policymakers claim to support the troops, there have been no meaningful policy changes by government leaders. Time and again, our government leaders have looked the other way, punted the systemic problem, or blamed military families themselves. More than once, policymakers and even some advocates have asked MAZON to stop pursuing this issue because “it’s a problem of personal financial mismanagement”—blaming the hungry for the systemic issues that keep them hungry.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about this issue just last Friday—she assured the American people that the president and Dr. Biden will “continue to fight to do more to make sure there are not hungry families, whether they’re military or not, in this country.” Earlier in the week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke at the Pentagon and recognized the crisis of military hunger, only to offer a band-aid solution in the form of a toolkit directing families to food pantries.

While it is heartening to see military hunger finally acknowledged at some of the highest levels of government, it’s still not enough. As my friend Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in that recent congressional hearing:

“We (Congress) have been talking about this, you’ve been talking about this, MAZON has been talking about this for years. The bottom line is that the powers that be haven’t done anything about it. The Pentagon has known about this for years, and yet they have 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—they haven’t done that.”

The Painful Truth

In large part, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) failure to adequately adjust servicemembers’ salaries in keeping with the military’s changing composition and needs has led to pervasive, persistent problems for military families and allowed them to persist for years. Today’s junior-enlisted servicemembers support families at much higher rates than previous cohorts, meaning they’re raising children on increasingly insufficient incomes. Yet, their families are often excluded from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a consequence of servicemembers’ Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) being counted as income in determining eligibility.

Compounding the issue is a lack of transparency from DoD in collecting data on food insecurity, and its reluctance to publicize the information it does have. The data publicly available indicate that the scope of the crisis is broad, but its true scale remains unknown. However, the growing number of food pantries serving military families is sufficient proof that the issue is widespread.

Hunger among military families isn’t just unnecessary and devastating—it’s also a matter of military readiness, retention, recruitment and morale. This is a national security issue of the first order.

Of course, COVID-19 has exacerbated the unique financial challenges of military families such as high rates of spousal unemployment—military spouses largely, but not entirely, women. Even before the pandemic, military spouses faced a 24 percent unemployment rate and higher rates of underemployment. When these families are ordered to relocate every few years, military spouses must find new employment opportunities in their new communities—often with higher with higher cost of living, limited access to affordable childcare, or away from networks of community and family support.

It is clearly long past time that our leaders enact long-term, sustainable solutions to this multifaceted crisis. To be clear, hunger among military families isn’t just unnecessary and devastating—it’s also a matter of military readiness, retention, recruitment and morale. This is a national security issue of the first order.

Simple, Common-Sense Solutions

In response to the complexity of military hunger, MAZON has proposed several common-sense, bipartisan steps that Congress and the administration can take to address this painful reality.

First and foremost, they must prioritize the inclusion of the full Military Family Basic Needs Allowance in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and ensure that this new targeted and temporary allowance excludes a servicemember’s housing as income when determining eligibility for safety net programs—an obstacle that penalizes military families, especially if they are relocated to a more expensive part of the country. With this foundational step, Congress and federal agencies can then determine what more must be done to meet the unique circumstances facing these military families. Allowing families to continue to struggle while additional information and data is gathered, is simply unconscionable. A lack of detailed data must not prevent advancing well-researched, immediate policy solutions.

Hunger among military families—indeed, all food insecurity — is a solvable problem. The solution lies in finding the political will to address it. Americans can agree on the terrible hypocrisy of asking men and women to serve, even as we fail to ensure that their families have enough to eat. Likewise we can agree that no one deserves to be hungry, and when the solutions are there, we expect our leaders to implement them.

Like most faiths, MAZON’s Jewish values and ideals instill in us the responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our midst. This Thanksgiving, let’s commit to expressing our gratitude not just with words but with acts. Let’s do what needs to be done so that we leave no one who struggles behind, including our military families.

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Abby J. Leibman is the president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and was a co-founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Abby has received, among other honors, the California Women Lawyer's Faye Stender Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles' Ernestine Stalhut Award, UCSD's Top 100 Influential Alumni Award, USC Law Center's Public Interest Advocate Award and the So. California Employer Round Table's Carol F. Schiller Award. She has a J.D. from Hastings College of Law and graduated magna cum laude from U.C. San Diego with a B.A. in political science.