Activists call for more help for military families struggling with hunger

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Kansas National Guardsmen and volunteers distribute boxes of fresh and dry goods to a pantry in Effingham, Kansas, June 22, 2020 (Dakota Helvie / US Army)

WASHINGTON – Military wife Bianca Strzalkowski has faced what too many military families are going through today: not enough food.

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

“We quickly entered a very sad period, which I consider shameful, because he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. We had to rely on food from food banks, ”she said at an event Wednesday hosted by MAZON, a Jewish rights organization focused on ending hunger.

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

“We couldn’t get out of this cycle of financial hardship. We relied on payday loans that sometimes had 40% interest rates, ”Strzalkowski said.

The military and their families were already struggling to get enough food before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Now, with the economic downturn, organizations fear that as more Americans turn to food banks, so do military families. A provision in the defense funding bill would help military families receive more money to improve their financial situation.

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

The US Department of Agriculture defines ranges of food insecurity. Low security includes low quality of the food. The very low safety level includes several reports of reduced food consumption.

Data on food insecurity among military families is limited. Many food banks don’t ask too many questions about the circumstances of those who use their services for fear of not coming back, experts say.

“There is nothing more stressful than having your husband fighting in combat in Afghanistan and having to rely on 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 are out there, but there is a very real stigma and fear in the careers of our military personnel to report these things that are happening in our home,” Strzalkowski said.

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

“The DOD was really reluctant to collect this data and asked the wrong questions. For example, in their quadrennial military compensation review, they just look at how many military families actually participate in SNAP, but they don’t ask how many are struggling and can’t get the help they need, ” Protas said on Wednesday. during the MAZON event.

Food insecurity is a preparation issue for the military, several defenders said. Not having enough healthy food for their families can prevent military personnel from focusing on their work and make them strive for physical fitness, said Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, in an August interview with Stars and Stripes.

The MFAN conducted a 2019 survey of military food insecurity and found that one in eight respondents answered yes to at least one question indicating that they were at risk of food insecurity, much like in 2017.

The two most food insecure places among respondents were Killeen, Texas, where Fort Hood is located, and Norfolk, Va., Where Navy and Navy facilities are located, according to Razsadin. This year, the MFAN is studying the causes of food insecurity in the military in more detail and will primarily focus on those locations in Texas and Virginia, she said.

“Everyone we spoke to agreed that no military family should be food insecure or in that position of making decisions about which family members should be fed. But at the end of the day it’s a family unit and if some people don’t eat it will affect the service member, ”she said.

Strzalkowski’s family relied on food banks where they spent $ 10 on a box of recently expired food from the grocery store, as well as the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, known under the name of WIC.

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

Nonprofit organizations focused on military families and food security have for years tried to solve one of the biggest barriers for many military families to participate in food programs like the Nutrition Assistance Program. supplement or SNAP: the basic housing allowance, or BAH, counts towards their total income.

“For [those] currently in service, what we found is that there is a barrier, really an unintended barrier, to accessing the SNAP program for low income military families. And as a result, there are pantries on or near almost every military base in this country that quietly serve families who cannot get the help they need and should be entitled to through the SNAP program. in particular, ”Protas said.

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

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

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

SNAP is a compulsory eligibility program in the Farm Bill of the Department of Agriculture, which is only renewed every five years, and the last time it was renewed, the BAH problem was not resolved, according to Jen Davis, deputy director of government relations for financial preparation at the National Association of Military Families.

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

Fixing the Farm Bill to extend the benefits of SNAP to more military personnel is not easy, Protas said.

“What’s complicated in the context of the Farm Bill is that it probably means that if you expand access to one population, in this case military families, that means you will have to reduce the nutrient title elsewhere. So you’re either going to reduce eligibility or access or benefit levels for another nutrition program, ”he said.

Organizations have called on Congress to add the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021. 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 NDAA but was not adopted in the final version.

The allowance is supported by more than 100 national, state and local organizations who submitted a signed letter this week urging Congress to make 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 base salary is equal to or less than 130% of the Federal Directive on poverty. They would also be provided with financial resources to help them manage their budgets, according to Davis.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the average aid to families of enlisted youth was around $ 400 per month. “And all in all, that’s not much when you look at the Pentagon budget and the salary budget, but that $ 400 a month makes a huge difference for a household that struggles to put in food. on the table and meet his basic needs, ”Protas said.

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

“This provision is targeted and constitutes temporary assistance. It is reaching these households when they need it most. And the service members move up, they step out of eligibility as their pay goes up, ”Protas said.

In the long run, Protas believes the military needs to figure out if families can really live on just one income.

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

[email protected] Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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