Spotlight Exclusives

Congress Looks to Ease Food Insecurity Among Military Families

Brittany Dymond Brittany Dymond, posted on

Food insecurity remains a significant problem for military families, both as a quality of life issue and a barrier to recruiting for an all-volunteer force.  According to a recent Rand study, approximately 15.4 percent of all active duty personnel would be classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having low food security in 2018. Another 10.4 percent would be classified as having very low food security.Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative Service Associate Director Brittany Dymond spoke to Spotlight recently about the issue, and specifically a new bipartisan bill that would make it easier for service members to quality for SNAP benefits. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with some context on how serious this issue is for the military?

It’s a significant issue and there’s a whole lot of data out there. About one in four military families are affected by food insecurity and whether that’s a research organization analysis or Department of Defense data, the numbers usually align. And while food insecurity is seen across the ranks, it’s predominantly centralized in the junior to middle enlisted ranks. By one estimate, 286,000 active duty military families are impacted and that number got a lot of attention, as it should. No family, no individual, no child should ever be food insecure. And when we’re talking about it in the context of military service and the fact that we have an all-volunteer force, the prospect of not having enough food to eat is not necessarily an attractive idea for prospective military personnel who are single and are thinking about having a family or for those who are already in and have a family and are looking at whether they should reenlist or not. So, that’s a significant problem when such a large portion of the force is affected by this. In addition to the impacts on the families themselves, food insecurity in the military endangers the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.

I’m sure there’s not a single cause, but what is generally thought to be driving this?

So, it’s a multitude of factors. The data and the reporting show that it’s complicated, but one of the primary drivers is the issue of spousal unemployment and underemployment. There are a number of factors leading into that, like childcare issues and the lead time it takes for a spouse to find a new job in a new location. There’s also been the continuing challenge of licensing. If a spouse is in a specialized career field and they are moving across state lines, they may have licensing challenges they have to overcome.

That makes sense. And in some cases, these are relatively small communities where they may not be a lot of open positions available.

Potentially, depending on the installation, which makes sense because not only are there less jobs to go around in these cases, but jobs may not be available for spouses with specialized skill sets or perhaps not at a compensation level they’d become accustomed to at their previous duty station. There might be challenges with finding jobs and there’s a difference between just having a job and being gainfully employed. I believe that there’s data out there that shows that military spouses, on average, have obtained a higher level of education than their civilian counterparts. So, when we take that into account, a spouse might be able to find a job in a new location, however, is that job fitting of their education and experience?

Another challenge, at least recently, is just the cost of things — for instance, child care access, whether it’s the cost or the long wait list for child care. On-base child care can be very difficult to obtain, and military families often have to look elsewhere. If a spouse has a job offer and they might bring in X amount of dollars a month, would there be a surplus of income after paying for that child care in addition to other household expenses? Or does it make more sense to stay home if they break even or don’t make enough to cover the added cost? You have to factor these considerations in about whether or not it actually makes sense for them to get a job at a new duty station. It’s complicated. The result could mean a significant difference in financial well-being from one duty station to the next, and thus more or less money to pay for necessities like healthy food.

And another factor in military food insecurity is the continuing issue of military pay. Each of the services have cited in the last few weeks during hearings that a thorough review of pay is needed. Fortunately, the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation was just launched, so this is in works.

And I know the pandemic has made the child care issue even more problematic with many vendors going out of business.

That’s right. There are wait lists on installations — we call them CDCs or child development centers — so there’s a challenge there. An additional challenge is finding qualified individuals to work in those CDCs at a pay level that’s attractive to them. And then on top of that, military personnel often work really strange schedules and so traditional business hours don’t necessarily fit those schedules. If there’s not a mechanism in place or a childcare program set up to accommodate those schedules, that just makes it more challenging for families.

Tell us what this legislation would do to try to help address this.

This legislation is what I would consider and, and perhaps many others would as well, as essentially just another tool in the toolbox for military families that are challenged with food insecurity on some level. So right now, the USDA counts basic allowance for housing as income for the purpose of calculating eligibility for SNAP benefits. For their civilian counterparts who have an equivalent voucher, such as a Section 8 housing voucher, that voucher is not counted as income. So, there’s an inequity there, just between civilian and military families.

There also is an inequity within the military between families who are receiving BAH and living off base, or in privatized military housing, and those living in on base military family housing and not receiving BAH. Those receiving BAH have it counted against them for the purposes of calculating SNAP eligibility while those not receiving BAH, but living in on-base housing, do not. So, you have a family living on base and a family living off base, and they might be at the same rank, but one family’s not having the in-kind value of their on base housing counted against them while the family living off base and receiving BAH is. It’s a complex problem, the issue of food insecurity in the military, and so enabling more families to access SNAP, which is what this bill would do by eliminating BAH from being considered as income for eligibility purposes, would be another tool in the toolbox, so to speak, in order to address the problem while the root causes are being researched.

There is also an issue with there being a stigma around accessing food benefits like SNAP. Some reports discuss a challenge with service members’ willingness to step forward and ask for help. That’s another barrier, but at this time, many people just can’t access it. And so that’s what this bill would seek to do—make SNAP more accessible.

And this bill has bipartisan support?


And what’s your sense of the level of support?

I can’t speak to the prospects of this specific bill, but I will say that in the advocacy community and with members on the Hill, the issue is known and there’s a lot of pressure to get this through this year in the Farm Bill because it’s such a necessity. I think members are starting to realize the nature of how challenging this problem is and the magnitude of it. And they’re actively looking for solutions.  The House Armed Services Committee has added a new quality of life panel headed by Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) and he is very aware that this is a significant issue, and it’s among the primary issues that he is looking to address.

And is the main vehicle before Congress to address this issue?

It’s not the only one. The other one is the Basic Needs Allowance, which is a brand new allowance that was created by the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. What it does basically is it requires DOD to identify service members that could potentially qualify for the basic needs allowance. Then, the service member has to apply and provide the appropriate documentation for household income, etc., and they have to reapply every 12 months.

Right now, the threshold for the benefit is 130% of the federal poverty level, and recent reporting revealed that 85 service members had qualified. So, it’s clear that there’s room for improvement, and along with the 2023 NDAA threshold increase to 150% of the FPL, and 200% in some circumstances, there has been interest in both the House and Senate in removing BAH from the eligibility formula for this benefit also, because many, many more families would be able to qualify.


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