Op-Ed: Farm Bill Proposal Gets Military Food Stamp Policy Wrong

Sailors assigned to the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Olympia (SSN 717) sort through donated food items for the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash., March 17. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nancy C. diBenedetto)
Sailors assigned to the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Olympia (SSN 717) sort through donated food items for the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash., March 17. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nancy C. diBenedetto)

Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel.

Kathy Roth-Douquet is CEO at Blue Star Families, a national, nonprofit network of military spouses, children, parents and friends, as well as service members, veterans and civilians, dedicated to supporting, connecting and empowering military families.

Tens of thousands of military families nationwide experienced food insecurity last year, and yet the new Farm Bill will make it more difficult for these families to get relief. U.S. House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, recently released a video about the 2018 Farm Bill that ends with an echoing proclamation that, "we must get this policy right."

It's hard to see how his draft of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 even comes close to achieving that goal. Instead, this bill includes proposals and provisions that threaten to pull the rug out from under millions of Americans, among them thousands of currently serving members of our nation's armed forces.

It is a harsh, underreported reality that far too many lower-ranking enlistees need help feeding their families. Military families may experience food insecurity because of financial emergencies, low pay, and crises levels of chronic unemployment or underemployment of military spouses in a society where most families need dual incomes to live.

Neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Agriculture tracks this issue specifically, but we do have ample evidence that hunger among military families is a problem.

• Department of Defense data shows that, on average, of the roughly 19,000 children enrolled in DODEA schools in the U.S. during the 2014-15 school year, 26 percent qualified for free meals and 25 percent were eligible for reduced price meals.

• Information obtained by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a leading national anti-hunger organization, reveals that food pantries operate on or near every single Navy and Marine Corps base in the United States. A Government Accountability Office report released in 2016 identified four food pantries on one base alone, one of which provides food assistance to an average of 400 to 500 Marine families every month.

• The 2017 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that 8 percent of respondents had sought emergency food assistance through a food bank or other charitable organization. Even more strikingly, 43 percent of active duty families had participated in social welfare programs like SNAP and WIC.

Low-income American families who meet prescribed eligibility criteria can get assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, the cornerstone program of our federal nutrition safety net. But because of a glitch in existing law, far too many of the men and women who bravely serve our nation don't qualify for this vital program.

Chairman Conaway could have fixed this technical error by advancing the common-sense solution provided in bipartisan bills that have been introduced by U.S. Representative Susan Davis, D-Calif., (H.R. 1078) and Senators Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Tom Udall, D-N.M. (S. 2488).

These bills exclude a service member's Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) from counting as income when determining eligibility for federal nutrition assistance benefits -- a straightforward solution that would help thousands of low-income military families put food on the table.

Instead, he chose to confuse the issue by excluding only the first $500 of a service member's BAH from counting as income for SNAP eligibility determination.

It's already challenging enough for struggling military families to navigate the existing patchwork of perplexing eligibility criteria when applying for desperately needed benefits. If Chairman Conaway really wanted to prevent hunger among military families, he would simplify the rules and establish consistency across different program eligibility criteria so that military families do not have to jump through hoops to get the help they need.

Instead, he has perpetuated a confusing situation without fully resolving this unacceptable problem that military families needlessly endure.

What also remains unclear, even to the advocates who have been on the front lines of the effort to fix this issue, is how he arrived at this arbitrary amount. How many military families does he suggest will be helped by this $500 income exclusion? And just as important: how many will still be left behind?

We can all agree that no one -- especially military families that sacrifice so much for our country -- should struggle to put food on the table. We have an opportunity in the Farm Bill to advance bipartisan solutions to make even greater progress in the effort to end hunger in this country. Sadly, the partisan farm bill proposed by Chairman Conaway gets the policy on SNAP so very wrong and would make the problem of hunger worse.

It's time to stop playing politics with real people's lives. We need to get this policy right.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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