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News / Northwest

A quarter of military families struggle to afford enough food. Northwest lawmakers are trying to help

By James Hanlon and Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 25, 2024, 6:17am

Spokane — Sara Jemo picked up a can of tomato soup from a wagon of groceries, crossed out the bar code with a permanent marker, then placed the can on a shelf. She repeated the process until the cart was empty and the shelf was stocked before she opened the Fairchild Food Pantry on Thursday.

The pantry isn’t for just any family in need. It’s for low-income military families.

The modest pantry on Fairchild Air Force Base distributes about 1,500 items of food to just under 100 families a month. Many more could use it, said Jemo, the pantry’s director.

“No one risking their life serving our country should go hungry,” Jemo said.

The pantry is operated under Operation Warm Heart, an independent nonprofit formed by the First Sergeant Council at Fairchild. Jemo, whose husband is a pilot at Fairchild, said her opinions are her own and the pantry is not affiliated with the Department of Defense.

Leadership spouses started the pantry in 2021 out of a small closet before it expanded into its own room. Jemo got involved about a year ago.

“Military families face the same budgetary pressures we all do,” said Aaron Czyzewski, director of advocacy and public policy for Food Lifeline, a food bank distributor in Western Washington.

Patrons with low ranks, E-1 to E-6, the first six pay levels for enlisted military members, can use the pantry once a pay period, every two weeks. The pantry is open to all other ranks once a month. Bag limits are based on family size.

Food drives and organizations like Second Harvest and Feed Spokane support the pantry. Food for All, a program from Catholic Charities, supplies fresh produce. The pantry also uses grants and financial donations to purchase staples from the commissary on base.

It’s not enough to keep up with the need, Jemo said.

In addition to the pantry, Second Harvest, a nonprofit food bank distributor for the Inland Northwest, periodically brings its mobile market to the base, where it serves about 300 families per visit, Second Harvest’s community partnerships director Eric Williams said. When finished, Second Harvest donates any excess food to the pantry.

Since most pantries offer food with no questions asked, it’s difficult to estimate how many military families are using other pantries off base, Williams said.

This was a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic but inflation and higher food prices have led to more food insecurity across the across the country, Czyzewski said, adding enlisted service members are no exception.

Jemo said local costs of living and lack of housing on base contribute to financial difficulties. A lot of Fairchild airmen are from parts of the country where prices are lower, so moving to Washington state has brought sticker shock.

And because there aren’t enough dorms, young single airmen have been forced to live off base where rents are high. Even with their housing allowance, they often need multiple roommates to afford it, Jemo said.

“When people realize there are food-insecure active military families, most people are really shocked and disappointed and want to do something about it,” Czyzewski said.

‘Not a new problem’

In a bygone era, the enlisted ranks of the U.S. military were composed mainly of young, single men who lived on base and ate their meals in mess halls. That changed with the end of the draft, and today’s military relies heavily on troops with families who have to contend with the cost of off-base housing and food.

A report based on a U.S. Department of Defense survey of active-duty troops — requested by Congress and published in 2023 by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank — found that more than 25% of military families are food insecure. But advocates say many of those families don’t receive the help they need, largely because of the way federal benefit programs are run — and a fundamental disagreement over what should count as military income.

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“Military pay is really complicated,” said Tom Trail, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND who was involved in the 2023 report.

In addition to base pay, service members who live off base receive stipends for housing and food, although the latter doesn’t apply to dependents. They can also be reimbursed for moving expenses, but that allowance doesn’t account for all the costs associated with relocating every two or three years, such as spouses losing their jobs.

The RAND report found that more than 286,000 active-duty families experience “low food security,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as not getting an adequate quality, variety or amount of food. Of those, about 120,000 face “very low food security,” reporting that they sometimes skip meals, eat less than they need or lose weight because they can’t afford enough food.

The rate of food insecurity is even higher — 45% — among the families of junior enlisted service members, according to a 2021 Pentagon report based on a survey of active-duty spouses. Members of the armed forces in the lowest ranks — E-1 through E-4 — make between about $1,900 and $3,000 per month before tax as of Jan. 1, when military pay rose by more than 5% from the previous year.

Military families also rely on a single income at a higher rate than their civilian counterparts.

Of the roughly 540,000 military spouses, about 90% of whom are women, only about half work a full-time or part-time job, according to the Government Accountability Office. The unemployment rate among military spouses, which excludes those who aren’t seeking work, is 21% — roughly five times higher than the national average.

“This is not a new problem, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Eileen Huck, senior deputy director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, adding that progress has been slow since her organization started working on the issue in the 1980s.

“There are still food pantries operating on or near virtually every military installation,” she said. “I think what we’ve been able to do over the last eight or 10 years in particular is really draw attention and awareness to the issue among leaders both on Capitol Hill and within the Department of Defense.”

In the late 1990s, a wave of news reports about service members relying on food stamps drew national attention. During the 2000 primaries, the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam veteran and GOP candidate for president, made ending what he called “the food stamp Army” a centerpiece of his campaign platform.

By the time the general election rolled around, both parties’ nominees — Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore — pledged to address the problem. Later that year, in an effort to improve the embarrassing optics of military families on food stamps, Congress passed legislation to create the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, a benefit based on income and family size that required military families to reapply each year.

But the program flopped, said Jen Goodale, director of government relations for military family policy at the Military Officers Association of America.

“Families weren’t asking for it, because you had to go to your chain of command and say, ‘Hey, we’re struggling with food insecurity and we need this support,’” said Goodale, a Marine Corps veteran. “No service member in their right mind wants to go to their command and say, ‘I can’t provide for my family.’ “

Only 285 families participated in the FSSA program in fiscal year 2013, according to a Pentagon report. Meanwhile, in 2013 about 23,000 active-duty service members received food stamps — which by then had been renamed SNAP in an effort to shed the stigma surrounding the benefits — according to the Government Accountability Office.

Congress ended FSSA for service members in the United States in 2015 while leaving it in place for families stationed overseas, where they aren’t eligible for SNAP. But although many military families receive SNAP benefits, they face a major barrier that their civilian counterparts don’t.

Under current law, service members who live off base receive a housing stipend, which varies by location, that disqualifies many families from food assistance. Unlike other forms of federal housing aid, such as Section 8 vouchers, the Basic Allowance for Housing counts as taxable income, which means it can exclude military families from other benefits.

Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said his organization began advocating for military families around 2008, when they started hearing about more troops frequenting food banks during the Great Recession.

Because SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that program would need to be changed through the Farm Bill, a legislative package that Congress passes roughly every five years. Lawmakers are due to pass a new Farm Bill in 2024 after passing a one-year extension when the 2018 bill expired late last year.

Along with other advocacy groups, MAZON first pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to simply ignore the housing allowance, arguing that the agency already had that authority. Three different administrations have disagreed with that idea, Protas said, so they tried to mandate the change through the 2018 Farm Bill. When that effort failed, the advocacy groups didn’t want to wait for the next Farm Bill, so they worked with their allies in Congress to design a new program.

In 2021, Congress created the Basic Needs Allowance, a monthly stipend that initially applied to families earning up to 130% of the federal poverty line, raised to 150% a year later. Protas said the new benefit was intended to be “a really elegant solution” that targets help to those who need it, without requiring service members to go to their commanding officer.

“We know that there’s so much stigma and shame and legitimate concerns about career status or security clearance if there’s a perception of financial problems,” he said. “So we really envisioned the Basic Needs Allowance to be as easy to access as possible, where you’re not worried about your career status.”

While the military notifies families that may be eligible for the Basic Needs Allowance based on a service member’s pay, the Defense Department doesn’t collect data on spouses’ income, so the new benefit still requires families to apply for it. Like SNAP, the new benefit also considers the housing allowance taxable income, contrary to what Protas said his group proposed.

So far, the Basic Needs Allowance hasn’t been much more successful than the program it replaced. Only about 3,000 families receive the benefit — barely 1% of those who are eligible, according to a 2022 estimate by the Pentagon.

“They’re basically applying a Band-Aid with the existing Basic Needs Allowance,” Goodale said. “What they need to do is apply a tourniquet.”

Rather than making troops apply each year for the Basic Needs Allowance, Goodale said, the military should just give families the benefit based on a service member’s income. Even if some spouses make enough money to disqualify their families from receiving the payments, she argued, “It’s certainly better to give more and ensure that the allowance is doing what it was intended to do.”

‘The big question’

Some members of Congress — including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. — want to make it easier for more military families to get SNAP benefits and the Basic Needs Allowance.

McMorris Rodgers, who co-chairs the Congressional Military Family Caucus, is a lead sponsor of a bill that would exclude the housing stipend from calculations to determine eligibility for SNAP. Murray co-sponsored the same legislation in the Senate, where her fellow Washington Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell, has also signed on.

“The fact that any military family is struggling to put food on the table is absolutely alarming, and we must do better,” McMorris Rodgers said during an event at the Fairchild Food Pantry on Jan. 4. The Spokane lawmaker is also a lead sponsor on separate legislation to stop factoring the housing stipend into children’s eligibility for free and discounted school meals.

“Service members and their families make tremendous sacrifices every day for our country,” Murray said in a statement, touting her work as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee to help pass the biggest military pay raise in two decades. “They should never have to struggle to put food on the table.”

McMorris Rodgers also co-sponsored a bill to exclude the housing allowance from determining eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance, which the House Armed Services Committee added to its version of the annual defense authorization bill in 2023 with the support of the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue, and his Republican counterpart.

Murray and McMorris Rodgers were among a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers who called on the Senate Armed Services Committee to support that measure, but when the House and Senate reconciled their different versions of the bill, the Basic Needs Allowance provision was removed. Instead, the final version of the bill authorized the defense secretary to pay junior enlisted service members a monthly bonus.

“Addressing food insecurity for service members and their families remains a key priority for the House Armed Services Committee and me personally,” Smith said in a statement, adding that “Congress can and must do more to address this issue and I will continue to fight for funding and legislative solutions.”

Spokesmen for the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Ranking Member Roger Wicker, R-Miss. — didn’t provide direct answers when asked why the provision in the House bill was removed from the final version.

“No service member or their family should ever go hungry,” Reed spokesman Cole Stevens said in a statement. “That’s why Senator Reed created the Basic Needs Allowance, which preserves housing benefits and adjusts a service member’s benefits based on demonstrated need. And it’s why he’s supported annual pay increases and is pushing for the Farm Bill to include even more help for the military and civilians alike.”

A spokesman for Wicker, Jack Beyrer, referred to the statement from Stevens in lieu of an answer.

Protas said resistance from the Senate Armed Services Committee has been the main obstacle to excluding the housing stipend from calculations for the Basic Needs Allowance, as McMorris Rodgers, Murray and others have advocated.

“There is a denial that this is a real problem,” he said of staff and lawmakers on the Senate panel, “and a perception that for those who are struggling, it’s because they don’t know how to manage their finances. So it’s putting the blame on the individuals who are struggling rather than on a systemic issue that is leaving people out to dry.”

The advocates said they aren’t waiting for that dynamic to change. Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, a nonprofit that connects military families with resources, said “the path of least resistance” would be addressing the SNAP issue through the Farm Bill.

“Because at the end of the day, families want a level playing field,” Razsadin said.

Another option could come from the Pentagon itself, which is in the middle of a comprehensive review of military compensation that occurs every four years. Goodale said a senior Pentagon official has told military and veterans service organizations that the review is considering expanding the Basic Allowance for Sustenance — a food stipend that now applies only to service members — to include dependents.

Defense Department spokeswoman Jade Fulce said the department plans to finish its review and submit a report to Congress by the end of 2024.

“Taking care of our people is a top priority of the Department, and this includes ensuring consistent access to healthy, affordable food,” Fulce said in a statement.

Fulce outlined several steps the Pentagon is taking to address the issue, including the recent pay increase, other allowances, cheaper options for shopping at military commissaries and making it easier to pay for child care. The department also is exploring ways to provide more on-base food options, she said, and screen for food insecurity through the military’s new electronic health record system, which was first launched at Fairchild in 2017.

Goodale said she appreciates the work Pentagon leaders are doing and understands the need to craft careful policy, but she said the piecemeal approach has failed to solve the problem for too long.

“In all the time that we’re spending trying to figure this out,” she said, “more families are falling through the cracks and standing in line at food pantries and skipping meals.”

With the U.S. military facing challenges around the world, Razsadin said ending hunger among military families is essential to ensuring the future of the armed forces.

“How can we get to a place of truly being competitive and making sure that military families do not have to make choices between their families’ economic well-being and their love of service to the country?” she said. “That’s ultimately the big question.”

James Hanlon’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

Orion Donovan Smith’s work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.