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Should More Troops Become Eligible for Food Stamps?

Members from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, and the Smokey Hill Vineyard Food Bank joined together to bring food to military families Nov. 19, 2012, at the base chapel. Airman 1st Class Darryl Bolden Jr./Air Force
Members from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, and the Smokey Hill Vineyard Food Bank joined together to bring food to military families Nov. 19, 2012, at the base chapel. Airman 1st Class Darryl Bolden Jr./Air Force

Despite steep pay raises since the 9/11 terror attacks, too many military personnel still struggle to feed their families and need an easier way to get food stamps, according to a new bill from a San Diego congresswoman.

Susan Davis has introduced the Military Hunger Prevention Act in a bid to exempt the military's Basic Allowance for Housing -- a central component of most troops' compensation -- when determining eligibility for food stamps and 17 other federal food programs.

The legislation comes as food pantries and other charities said they continue to encounter strong demand from military households for their services.

"These are young families that are affected, generally," said Davis, D-San Diego, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "We see them resorting far too frequently to emergency assistance. And that troubles people. It troubles people in San Diego. It troubles me. It troubles people around the country, but we think that we've found a pretty easy way to fix it."

Basic Allowance for Housing is a tax-free payment given to service members who don't reside in military housing.

About two out of every three service members nationwide draw the allowance, and the monthly amounts vary by each person's pay grade. Troops with spouses or children get a bigger allowance. Payouts also are pegged to housing and utility costs in each region of the nation.

Take as an example a junior Navy petty officer who enlisted three years ago and currently has a spouse and one child. The family lives near base in pricey San Diego.

That household would receive about $17,000 per year for the housing allowance, plus $4,000 in nontaxable help for food and other items, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Add the sailor's regular pay, and the total compensation package hovers near $51,000 annually.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's about $3,000 less than the typical full-time wage earner in San Diego County makes.

But it's high enough to disqualify the service member from being eligible for food stamps. In fact, even if the household added three more children, the housing allowance would bar them from getting food stamps in California.

That has put the burden of feeding financially challenged military families on the private sector, according to an analysis by the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank.

The food bank said it aids more than 28,000 low-income armed forces personnel and veterans -- 29 tons of food distributed monthly through the Navy Wives Food Locker, Military Outreach Ministries and the Brother Benno Foundation, the Oceanside soup kitchen serving Camp Pendleton.

James Floros, president of the food bank, said local military families have been hit hard by skyrocketing housing costs -- the median price for a San Diego home is about $490,000 -- plus high levels of unemployment among their spouses.

An estimated 18 percent of military spouses want a job but can't land one, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's more than 3 1/2 times the national rate.

"The thing is, about 67 percent of military families depend on one wage earner," Floros said. "We work really hard to see if they can qualify for (food stamps) because the benefit gives them a level of independence they don't have now. [Currently], they're going to a distribution center to get food and waiting in line at 7 a.m."

California's food stamp program -- called CalFresh -- pays $4.50 per person daily. Floros said service members won't be "getting rich on food stamps" if the Davis bill passes.

To him, junior enlisted service members with large families should be seen as the "working poor," much like the 340,000 other San Diego County residents who depend on the food bank's assistance..

To get service members and their families off the food stamp rolls, Congress created the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance in 2000. It provides up to $1,100 per month in extra compensation for a needy G.I., but only 188 active-duty troops received the benefit last year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In 2001, Congress began rapidly raising pay for the armed forces. By the end of that decade, enlisted service members got more compensation than 90 percent of their civilian peers with the same levels of education and job experience, according to the 2011 Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation.

For instance: Enlisted troops with two-year college degrees garnered 44 percent more in wages and benefits than equivalent civilians, and troops with high school diplomas made 87 percent more than their civilian counterparts.

Yet when GAO investigators visited Camp Pendleton late last year, they found four food pantries on base. One of those programs alone fed between 400 and 500 Marine families every month.

In 2015, the Department of Defense determined that nearly a quarter of the children in Pentagon-run schools inside the continental United States qualified for free meals.

Last year's Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey revealed that 6 percent of respondents sought emergency food aid through a food bank or other charity.

Between September 2014 and August 2015, active-duty troops spent more than $21 million worth of food stamps at base commissaries, according to the Pentagon.

A 2013 Census Bureau study estimated that about 23,000 military families used food stamps during the previous 12 months -- about 2 percent of the active-duty force.

More troops would use them if they knew how to access the program and overcame the stigma of buying groceries with food stamps, the GAO determined. To help overcome the stigma of handouts, the San Diego Food Bank launched a program that discreetly distributes more than 1,600 backpacks stuffed with groceries to 33 schools every week.

The initiative feeds chronically hungry students over the weekend, when they can't eat a free cafeteria breakfast or lunch. The students are summoned to a school office -- typically the nurse's station -- to receive backpacks that they can tote home.

It's a moment of charity replayed every Friday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's Youth and Teen Center and two elementary schools located on Camp Pendleton, which is a key reason why Davis vows to reintroduce her bill in the next Congress if it fails this year.

"It's unconscionable to people that we have not solved this problem," she said.

Neither President Barack Obama nor President-elect Donald Trump has commented on Davis' measure.

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