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Food stamp use at military commissaries up sharply in four years

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Food stamp purchases at military commissaries have nearly tripled during the last four years, according to Defense Commissary Agency figures.

The agency reports that nearly $88 million worth of food stamps were used at commissaries nationwide in 2011, up from $31 million in 2008.

There is little information about who is using the food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by the Department of Agriculture, because DeCA and the Defense Department do not keep data on individuals who purchase items at commissaries. But Joyce Raezer, the executive director of the National Military Family Association, suspects that the majority of food stamp users are veterans who separated before retirement and members of the National Guard or reserve forces.

“I suspect that we are talking about more recently [separated],” she said, “who have gotten out of the military and found out that it’s not so easy to find a job in the civilian sector.”

Nearly 860,000 veterans filed for unemployment benefits last month, of whom more than one-quarter are young veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Raezer said she has also heard that members of the reserve forces and the National Guard are increasingly seeking help from organizations that provide emergency assistance to military families.

“I would be willing to suspect they have been demobilized, they are off active duty, but their civilian job isn’t there anymore,” she said.

Raezer, who has been following the issue of food stamp usage at commissaries for more than a decade, said that very few active-duty servicemembers qualify for food stamps “because military pay has improved so much” over the last decade.

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A 2003 Department of Defense study, the most recent available, found that 2,100 active-duty members received food stamps in 2002. That number was much lower than the 19,400 receiving food stamps in 1991.

“We are working with the Department of Agriculture on an updated study now,” said DOD spokeswoman Eileen M. Lainez in an email.

The 2003 study showed that the majority of active-duty servicemembers who qualified for food stamp assistance lived in base housing. Housing is not calculated as part of servicemembers’ income, and many would not have qualified for the program had the cost of housing been included, the study found.

“The fact that some enlisted members and even a few officers received (food stamps) was more a result of larger household sizes and living in government quarters than an indicator of inadequate military compensation,” said Lainez.

The military, however, started its own food assistance program, the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, or FSSA, in 2001 to remove military families from the food stamp program.

The program provides servicemembers with families up to $1,100 monthly, depending on household income and family size. All servicemembers can apply, but the majority who receive the allowance are junior enlisted servicemembers who enter the military with large families, said Lainez.

In 2010, 510 servicemembers qualified for the program, receiving more than $1.3 million in aid. That figure was a jump from 2009, when 245 servicemembers qualified for the program and received about $737,000.

Still, it’s a tiny group, considering that there are now more than 1.4 million servicemembers, Lainez said: “This represents .000375 (.0375%) or less than four-one hundredths of one percent of the active duty population.”

The steep economic downturn began in the fall of 2008, and the sharpest year-to-year growth in food stamp usage at commissaries was from 2008 to 2009, increasing nearly 70 percent to $53 million.

Bases overseas do not accept food stamps.

During this time, civilian use of food stamps also increased significantly, from about $35 billion to more than $50 billion. In 2010, the Dept. of Agriculture reported there were $65 billion worth of food stamp purchases nationwide.

The commissaries sell items at cost, with a 5 percent surcharge. According to the DeCA website, this model saves patrons an average of 30 percent when contrasted with commercial prices.

John Smith, a spokesman for Operation Homefront, a non-profit organization that provides emergency assistance to military families, said his organization has seen the amount of food assistance it provides to military families double since 2008.

The nature of military service, in which servicemembers are constantly moving to new assignments, often has unintended consequences on the income of military families, he said.

“All of a sudden your spouse can’t work anymore, he said. “And there is a potential crisis right there.”

robbinss@estripes.osd.mil

 Items that can be purchased using food stamps:

-- breads and cereals;

-- fruits and vegetables;

-- meats, fish and poultry; and

-- dairy products.

-- seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.

Source: USDA.gov

Chart showing the amount of food stamp purchases, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, at base commissaries nationwide:

 2008: $31,146,015

2009: $52,954,938

2010: $72,831,952

2011: $87,837,643

Source: the Defense Commissary Agency

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