A bipartisan pair of senators is trying to help get service members access to federal food assistance as hundreds of thousands of low-income troops struggle with food insecurity and a military stipend to address the issue appears to have fallen short.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are reintroducing their Military Family Nutrition Access Act, which would exclude the military's Basic Allowance for Housing from income calculations used to determine eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps.
The bill addresses a problem advocates have pointed to that blocks low-income military families from using the program. Despite more than 280,000 service members reporting food insecurity, just 22,000 were using SNAP as of 2019, according to a Government Accountability Office report from that year.
"They're still hungry men and women who wear the uniform of this great nation who defend us," Duckworth said in a Wednesday phone interview with Military.com, "and I'm not going to stop until we take care of this issue for what tend to be our lowest-ranked military men and women and their families."
Nearly a quarter of all active-duty service members experienced some level of food insecurity in 2020 and 2021, with junior enlisted personnel with less than four years of service at the highest risk, according to a Defense Department analysis released in July.
By including BAH in income calculations, many low-income service members are deemed to make too much to be eligible for food assistance.
"The IRS doesn't consider BAH income when you pay your taxes," Duckworth said. "WIC program -- supplemental nutrition for women, infants and children -- doesn't consider BAH to be income. Why would we then suddenly under SNAP be completely different from all the other other programs within the federal government?"
Congress has taken steps to address food insecurity among service members in recent years, but advocates have said those efforts have so far fallen short.
In the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that passed in 2021, lawmakers created a Basic Needs Allowance, or BNA, to ensure no service member's income falls below 130% of the federal poverty line. In the NDAA passed last year, Congress moved to expand eligibility for BNA by increasing the maximum income to 150% of the federal poverty line.
But like SNAP, BNA includes BAH in income calculations. Under the eligibility criteria passed in 2021, the military services reportedly have so far identified just 85 service members eligible for BNA, according to Military Times.
"There are probably multiple points of improvement that could happen, not least of which is, DoD is reluctant to implement this," said Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who used food stamps growing up after her father, a Vietnam War veteran, lost his job. "This was not something DoD really wanted to admit they had a problem with."
Duckworth and Murkowski previously introduced the bill to adjust service members' SNAP eligibility last Congress, but it went nowhere.
But Duckworth said she is hopeful this Congress will be different after two years of bipartisan support for the BNA system specifically aimed at helping fight hunger.
"I think there was just an educational process that had to happen," she said. "We had a prolonged discussion on this topic in the [NDAA] amendments process, where people were like, 'Who's hungry? Who are these people? Are these just young enlisted who are blowing all their money on Harleys and don't save enough money?' And when I say, 'No, look, if you are an E-3 or below and you have a spouse and a child, you actually are now food insecure based on the pay scale.' And so it really opened people's eyes."
Another difference this session is that Duckworth will be aiming to attach the proposal to this year's Farm Bill, a package of agricultural legislation passed about every five years, rather than this year's NDAA. She said she has already raised the idea with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and they are both "open to the discussion."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.