You probably read recently that the number of people using food stamps at the commissary went up in fiscal 2013.
But we missed the boat with two things in that story. First, the data we looked at stopped at the end of 2013. Second, we didn't look at how many military commissary food stamp users are actually Active Duty.
By not looking at the most recent data which goes through the first quarter of 2014 we passed by this important fact: food stamp transactions dropped 19 percent in the commissaries the first quarter of 2014.
As I reported out what became my Military.com story I realized something else: when we talk about food stamp use on post, we imply that the users are all active duty military members who are not being paid enough to take care of their families.
The reality may be something else entirely.
Let's pause for a second to acknowledge some truths. First, hunger is a serious issue. The SNAP program serves a very important purpose of making sure people are getting food in times of need. Next, my own abnormally large family (I have seven younger brothers and sisters!) back home has been on food stamps, and so you can trust that I am no way passing judgement on those who use them. Finally, families fall into times of need for various reasons that you and I cannot possibly imagine. I am in no way meaning to call into question the validity of the need of a family for help. I have piles of my own problems that you would never guess -- I'm not going to go around and assume I know yours.
However, over the past few days I have received a series of messages from news organizations looking to talk about the deplorably large number military families on food stamps. They saw the numbers -- that there were almost 970,000 SNAP transactions at the commissary in 2013, for example -- and they can't fathom why so many military families are forced to register for federal food assistance. They ask -- Why isn't the military being paid a living wage?! What is wrong with this country?!
And if those numbers actually reflected the number of active duty military families who were on food stamps, it would be shocking.
But they don't.
Here's the real story:
Only 2,000 active duty military families registered for food stamps in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the SNAP program. That is down from the 5,000 that used it in 2011. Let's not make any assumptions about how many are using the system today and just run with that.
Two thousand is still a lot of families. But it is no where near the amount the total SNAP transactions at the military commissary would make it seem. In fact, if only active duty families on food stamps made the transactions reported for 2012 -- about 948,000 -- each household would've each made about 474 separate SNAP purchases over 365 days.
Seems unlikely, doesn't it?
So who is using the commissary for food stamp purchases?
It's hard to know exactly since neither the Defense Department nor the USDA track that data. But it's safe to assume that the purchases are being made by the other people who have access to the commissary including reservists, national guard members and veterans.
Again, any food stamp usage is a issue that should make us pause and wonder what we need to do to better support our military families -- regardless of their service status. But the fact remains that for active duty members who receive a regular paycheck a relatively small percentage qualify for food stamps. And that's good.
So who does qualify? If you're reading this post and you use the program you can tell us your own story in the comments. From the information I've gathered from the DoD and the military families I've talked to, food stamps tend to be used by those who have abnormally large families for their pay grade. It is, for example, the E-5 with six children or the E-4 with five. And military families, the DoD says, are likely to promote out of the ability to register for the benefit.
But here's the thing about this issue: When I field queries from media outlets looking to do a food stamp story, they are rarely looking to talk about how we can support our service members with abnormally large families or those who have fallen on a spate of hard times, possibly unrelated to their military service. They are looking for a "poor you, military families" story. They are looking to give our community as a whole a nice little pity party, complete with hats and cake.
"We think military members shouldn't be forced to use food stamps," one producer told me. "We think that's wrong."And I know you have all told me what you don't want. You don't want to whine. You don't want a pity party. You want to America to know we are strong, that we chose to serve, that when benefit promises are kept and Congress isn't messing with us we are generally treated fairly. We want them to know we are proud of our service members and resilient.
And as far as the food stamp data for active duty users goes, the story is largely not one of pity.