More Work Ahead: Fighting Food Insecurity Among Military Families

A Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 29, 2017. (White House Photo / Shealah Craighead)

In one of its last sessions of 2021, Congress passed a pared-down version of the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This marks an important first step toward closing gaps in our social safety net through which currently-serving military families have been allowed to fall. But it’s miles from enough.

For months, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger led a broad coalition of anti-hunger advocates, military service organizations and others urging Congress to adopt the bipartisan Military Hunger Prevention Act’ in this year’s NDAA. An initial ‘full-bellied’ version of the bill passed the House in September. Ultimately, however, Congress chose a path that helps far too few military families—serving only a fraction of the thousands of hungry military families who would directly benefit under the original provision.

What Did Congress Do, and What’s Wrong With It?

The NDAA that President Biden signed into law just after Christmas will provide a few breadcrumbs in the form of a marginal new benefit to certain eligible low-income military families. This new allowance is tied to the service member’s rank (and therefore base pay) and household size, aiming to provide assistance to service members with families so they are not living below the poverty line.

When MAZON first devised the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, we deliberately specified that a servicemember’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) would not be counted as income when determining eligibility for the new allowance. We know this is a major hurdle for military families trying to access nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, and it’s important to avoid that barrier.

Therefore, one of the most worrying pieces of Congress’s ‘breadcrumbs’ compromise NDAA is that it directs the secretary of defense to use his or her discretion to waive the BAH as income for service members only in “high cost of living areas.” The risk of this discretionary approach was on display just this week, when the Pentagon announced new metrics for assessing ‘high cost of living areas,’ stripping cost-of-living stipends for more than eight in ten enlisted service members.

Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, families in every zip code and stationed at every military base in America are facing hardship. We know that military families often face unique financial challenges related to frequent relocation, high spousal unemployment rates, and lack of affordable childcare. The well-being of military families should not be an open-ended question subject to the whims or interpretations of whomever happens to be seated at the head of the Pentagon or open to questionable decisions about what geographic areas are deserving of additional assistance. The federal government must not penalize those who do not happen to live in areas designated as being ‘high cost of living.’

The well-being of military families should not be an open-ended question subject to the whims or interpretations of whomever happens to be seated at the head of the Pentagon or open to questionable decisions about what geographic areas are deserving of additional assistance.

Additionally, under Congress’ revised provision, the Secretary of Defense would notify a servicemember that they might be eligible for the new Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, but that individual must then initiate and undergo an onerous application process. This has real potential to exclude military families who struggle to put food on the table, as we have seen with previous Defense Department programs. MAZON worked tirelessly to design the new allowance to specifically avoid this type of flawed policy and to minimize the persistent stigma and shame associated with applying for federal nutrition assistance programs.

Okay—What Now?

Clearly, it’s unacceptable that thousands of military families turn in desperation to food pantries around the country. As we wrote to President Biden back in October, there are fortunately several immediate actions the Administration can take that will make a meaningful difference in addressing this long–overlooked problem.

In the wake of Congress’s lackluster response, it is more urgent than ever for the administration to use its authority to take action on concrete, long-term solutions to address military hunger:

  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin must use the wide discretion granted to him in the recently-signed NDAA to enable as many military families as possible to receive the new Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, recognizing that hunger does not only exist in “high cost of living areas.” We at MAZON are eager to work with Pentagon officials and military service organizations to create, implement, and strengthen this new allowance program.
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must heed MAZON’s advice and take immediate executive action to remove barriers to federal nutrition programs like SNAP, which currently treat military families differently than civilians.
  • President Biden must convene a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Hunger that includes prominent discussions about hunger among veteran and military families.
  • Federal agencies including the departments of Defense, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs must share data and resources about food insecurity among military families and work together to proactively find solutions.

What’s at Stake?

Relying on the charitable sector to fill the gaps in military families’ basic needs is not only untenable; it’s an abdication of Congress’s sworn duty. Congress should be striving to make food pantries obsolete by closing gaps in federal safety net programs that have allowed tens of thousands of military families to suffer needlessly from hunger. Instead—as MAZON outlined in our ”Hungry in the Military” report earlier this year—food banks operate on or near every military base in the country, serving thousands of military families.

The deleterious impact of hunger on military readiness is not up for debate; flagging retention rates caused by food insecurity are a matter of fact, not opinion. For nearly a decade, we at MAZON have urged policymakers to set a higher, healthier, and safer standard of living for military families. It is clearly long past time that our leaders enact long-term, sustainable solutions to this multifaceted crisis.

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Liza Lieberman is director of communications at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, promoting the organization’s policy priorities and strengthening its role and reputation as an authoritative voice in the anti-hunger field.