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Advocates push for more help for military families struggling with hunger

Kansas National Guardsmen and volunteers hand out boxes of fresh produce and dry goods at a food pantry in Effingham, Kan., on June 22, 2020.

DAKOTA HELVIE/U.S. ARMY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 15, 2020

WASHINGTON — Military spouse Bianca Strzalkowski faced what too many military families are experiencing today: not enough food.

When her husband, a Marine, received orders to move to from their first duty station at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, Strzalkowski was unable to find work there.

“We quickly spiraled into a very sad, and what I consider shameful, time, as he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. We had to rely on food bank food,” she said during an event Wednesday hosted by MAZON, a Jewish advocacy organization focused on ending hunger.

The current rate of unemployment for military spouses is 24%, according to the Defense Department. When Strzalkowski’s family moved again, back to North Carolina, the financial strain continued.

“We could not get out of this cycle of financial hardship. We leaned on payday advance loans that sometimes had interest rates of 40%,” Strzalkowski said.

Service members and their families were already struggling to afford enough food before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now with the economic downturn, organizations are concerned that as more Americans look to food banks, so will more military families. A provision in the pending defense funding bill would help military families receive more money to improve their financial situation.

“It's just absurd to me that that this continues to be an issue and that there's a denial that there's a problem,” Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at MAZON said in an interview with Stars and Stripes last month.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines ranges of food insecurity. Low security includes reduced quality of food. Very low security includes multiple reports of reduced food intake.

Data regarding food insecurity among military families is limited. Many food banks do not ask too many questions about the circumstances of those who use their services out of concern they may not return, experts say. 

“There is nothing more stressful than having your husband fighting in combat in Afghanistan and having to lean on your extended family members or payday loans to feed your children,” Strzalkowski said.

She added that she was only telling her story now because her husband retired from the Marine Corps two years ago.

“I was very aware of the different programs and resources that exist, but there is a very real stigma and fear to our service members’ careers to report these things that are happening in our household,” Strzalkowski said.

The Pentagon does not like to talk about food insecurity because “they find it embarrassing to have military families on food stamps,” Protas said.

“DOD has really been reluctant in gathering this data and has been asking the wrong questions. For example, in its quadrennial review of military compensation, they're just looking at how many military families actually participate in SNAP, but they're not asking how many struggle and can't get the help that they need,” Protas said Wednesday during the MAZON event.

Food insecurity is a readiness issue for the military, several advocates said. Not having enough healthy food for their family can distract service members from focusing on their work and make them struggle with physical fitness, said Shannon Razsadin, the executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, in an August interview with Stars and Stripes.

MFAN conducted a survey in 2019 that asked about military food insecurity and found that one in eight respondents said yes to at least one question indicating that they were at risk of food insecurity, about the same as in 2017.

The two locations that had the most food insecurity among respondents were Killeen, Texas, where Fort Hood is located, and Norfolk, Va., where Navy and Marine installations are located, according to Razsadin. This year, MFAN is looking further into the causes of food insecurity in the military and will focus primarily on these locations in Texas and Virginia, she said. 

“Everyone that we've talked to agrees that no military family should be experiencing food insecurity or in this position where they have to make decisions on who in the family should be fed. But ultimately, it's a family unit and if some people aren’t eating it is going to affect the service member,” she said.

Strzalkowski’s family relied on food banks where she spent $10 for a box that included recently expired food from the grocery store, as well as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.

“When I was pregnant with my second son, we relied on [Meals Ready to Eat] that are distributed to soldiers in the field to feed our family dinner,” she said.

Nonprofit organizations focused on military families and food security have been trying for years to resolve one of the biggest hurdles for many military families to participate in food programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP: the basic allowance for housing, or BAH, counts toward their total income.

“For [those] currently serving, what we discovered was that there's this barrier, really an unintended barrier, to access the SNAP program for low income military families. And as a result, there are food pantries on or near almost every military base in this country that are quietly serving families who can't get the help that they need and should be entitled to through the SNAP program in particular,” Protas said.

BAH is given to service members to pay for housing on base or in the surrounding community. If a service member and his or her family lives in base housing, the money is taken automatically from the service member’s paycheck. For those who live off base, the BAH goes toward housing and utilities, however it currently only covers 95% of housing costs, Protas said.

If a civilian applies to SNAP and has federal housing benefits, the value of the housing benefit is not considered income. Service members, on the other hand, have their housing allowance considered as income for SNAP eligibility, according to Protas.

WIC does not include basic allowance for housing as part of their eligibility equation with service members, Razsadin said.

SNAP is a mandatory entitlement program in the Agriculture Department’s Farm Bill, which is only renewed every five years, and the last time it was renewed the BAH issue was not fixed, according to Jen Davis, the government relations deputy director for financial readiness at the National Military Family Association.

“It's a challenge. It's something that I can't imagine going and applying for food stamps, and then being told you made too much money when you're in the military, because to me that has to be such a personal emotional blow that people get,”Razsadin said.

Fixing the Farm Bill to expand SNAP benefits to more military members is not simple, according to Protas.

“What's complicated in the Farm Bill context is that likely means that if you expand access for one population, in this case, military families, that means that you're going to have to make cuts to the nutrition title somewhere else. So, you're going to either cut eligibility or access or benefit levels for another nutrition program,” he said.

Organizations have been advocating to Congress to add the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance to the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. A provision for this is currently in the House version of the bill, but not in the Senate version. Last year the provision was also in the House version of the NDAA but was not passed in the final version.

The allowance is supported by over 100 national, state and local organizations that submitted a signed letter this week urging Congress to put the provision in the NDAA, according to MAZON.

If passed in the final version of the NDAA, the allowance would allow the Defense Finance Accounting Service to automatically notify service members whose basic pay is at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Guideline. They would also be provided with financial resources to help manage their budget, according to Davis.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the average assistance to junior enlisted families was about $400 per month. “And in the bigger picture that's not much when you look at the Pentagon budget and you look at the budget for salaries, but that $400 a month makes a tremendous difference for a household that's struggling to put food on the table and struggling to meet their basic needs,” Protas said.

In order to receive the allowance, service members would have to verify their household information such as any additional income from their spouse. Service members can also opt out of the program.

“This provision is targeted and is temporary assistance. It’s reaching those households at a time of their greatest need. And the service members promote up, they move outside of eligibility as their pay increased,” Protas said.

In the long term, Protas believes the military has to look at whether families can really live on a single income.

“I think there has to be a question whether compensation levels for the junior enlisted ranks are really in line with the household structure and the needs for military families,” he said.

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney