Many struggling military families can't access federal food assistance due to the way their income is calculated on the assistance application, anti-hunger advocates testified Tuesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Military families who qualify for assistance through the Women and Infant Children, or WIC, program apply using the income on which they are taxed. But users of the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, must apply using their total income regardless of taxes. For military families, that means basic allowance for housing is considered part of the SNAP application but not part of WIC -- and can mean families who qualify for one do not qualify for the other.
That discrepancy, along with a lack of awareness on military bases of available programs and help, contributes to "food insecurity" among active duty military families, anti-hunger advocates told lawmakers during a hearing today before the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition.
"On paper it appears these families are economically stable when, in reality, they may not earn enough to support their children," said Erika Tebbens, a former Navy spouse whose family struggled to buy food while on active duty.
When her family relocated to a base in Washington State, she was unable to find a job that provided enough income to cover her student loans and cover the cost of childcare. When she tried to register the family for food stamps, but the BAH they received for their home near high cost of living Seattle disqualified them from the program.
"There can be no denying that food insecurity among military families is a real and a painful reality," said Abby Leibman, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. "Federal policies are actually denying struggling military families the resources they need to avoid food insecurity."
Commissary shoppers, including active duty, guard and reserve families, retirees and gold star families, spent about $85 million in SNAP money at the commissary in 2014, the last year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the program.
That figure is down from $103 million in 2013, though the drop could be the result of a late 2013 food stamp benefit reduction. A U.S. Census survey shows that over 19,400 active-duty service members were estimated to receive SNAP in 2014, Mazon officials said.
Leibman said that removing BAH from the SNAP calculation would go a long way in ensuring that military families who are struggling to pay their bills are able to receive federal food assistance when needed and are not left to instead rely on local food pantries.
"It means making SNAP not only available but making individuals on the base aware that SNAP is available is much more imperative," she said.
Committee members said they need to work on a way to help active duty military families as well veterans, who often struggle financially while moving through the sluggish Veterans Affairs benefit process.
"I have to say that your testimony is sad," Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts and the committee's ranking democrat, told the panelists. "We live in the richest country in the world and we have a big chunk of our population that doesn't know if they can put food on the table. And I think we should be ashamed of that."