Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Ashish Vazirani is executive director and CEO of the National Military Family Association.
All across America, food banks are experiencing unprecedented demand. Families struggling to put food on the table during the COVID-19 pandemic are turning to food pantries, charities and federal benefits for help as the painful reality of hunger sets in.
Among those seeking help are military families who don't know where their next meal will come from. Yes, military families facing hunger -- it's as unjust as it is shocking.
This is not a new problem. Sadly, even before the pandemic, military families faced "food insecurity," unsure of where or how they would feed themselves and their families.
For nearly a decade, our organizations, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Military Family Association have urged policymakers to pay attention to this unacceptable issue. Unfortunately, our proposed solutions have not yet come to fruition. The problem persists, and sadly so do the stigma and shame associated with the need for nutrition benefits.
These currently serving members of the armed forces, often junior enlisted service members with multiple dependents, have been turning in desperation to emergency assistance for years, surviving with the help of the food banks and pantries that operate on or near every military installation in the country.
Food pantries are now overwhelmed, as we are seeing in dramatic news images and headlines.
Like many Americans, military families often rely on two incomes. As national unemployment rates skyrocket, the toll hits military families particularly hard. Military spouses, who faced a 24% unemployment rate and even higher rates of underemployment before the pandemic, are reporting desperate levels of income loss. In fact, the COVID-19 Military Support Initiative, which surveys military families on a weekly basis about their experience during the ongoing pandemic, found in a poll taken April 21-28 that 18% of military spouses who were working prior to the COVID-19 crisis have lost their job or are unable to work due to the pandemic.
Families with children are hit particularly hard. In the 2018-19 school year, one-third of children at Defense Department-run schools on military bases qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches. Without access to subsidized school meals, families face terrifying uncertainty about having enough food to eat.
Military families are going hungry, and they need not. Congress can act immediately to help the military families who are. It's time to remove this known, but long-ignored, barrier that prevents military families from accessing our federal government's frontline defense against hunger, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Currently, a service member's Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) is counted as income for determining eligibility for SNAP, which prevents many struggling military families from accessing this critically important -- and often life-saving -- federal benefit. Housing subsidies for civilians are not counted as income for SNAP. Nor is BAH considered income by the IRS or counted into a service member's Adjusted Gross Income.
If the IRS doesn't consider BAH income, SNAP shouldn't either.
A simple provision to exclude BAH from the equation would ensure that these service members are treated equitably and are able to meet their family's most basic needs. It would also eliminate unnecessary stress and anxiety contributing to optimal mission readiness. Congress must act now to prioritize this simple change in the next COVID-19 response legislation.
During this time of global crisis, everyone is facing uncertainty and hardship in some way. But no one -- certainly not those who stand up to serve our country -- should go hungry.
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