Junior military personnel or those with large households can apply for a Defense Department food assistance subsidy to be added directly to their paycheck every month, instead of applying for or using food stamps. But one anti-hunger organization is calling for major changes to the program that would allow more service members to receive the benefit.
Officials with the organization Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said making a series of changes to the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA) benefit would make a big impact on potential hunger problems among lower-income military members.
"A few straightforward changes will ensure that the program lives up to its promise and make FSSA far more effective, efficient and, most important, wholly supportive of our military personnel without rancor or stigma," wrote Abby Leibman, president of Mazon in a Sept. 19 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. "You have the power and the responsibility to undertake this transformation."
Currently, FSSA is a cash benefit tacked on to the paycheck of service members who apply and then qualify for the help. It is designed to be used instead of food stamps, known as SNAP, so if you get this benefit you are no longer eligible for that supplement. And unlike SNAP, it can be used by military members who are stationed overseas.
It is also a more clear-cut program to apply for than SNAP. The SNAP benefit varies state-to-state. Some places include the value of a variety of belongings, such as cars, in your SNAP calculations. Some count your BAH benefit, while others only look at your taxable income.
FSSA is simple: it looks at your income (including BAH), your family size and your location and uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) income eligibility table to determine whether or not you can get FSSA. Your eligibility is re-certified annually.
Still, only 285 military families used the program in 2013, despite reports that claim (and are disputed) that over 25 percent of military-affiliated households use food banks.
Mazon officials say a series of changes can be made to FSSA to make it more user friendly and make sure more service members can qualify for it.
Instead of requiring manual enrollment, they want the DoD to make the supplement automatic. If a service member has a family size that bumps the income-to-household ratio up to qualifying levels, the money should just appear.
"While a substantial majority of enlisted personnel will not qualify for nor use FSSA benefits, those who do require support should receive those benefits in a streamlined and efficient manner," Leibman wrote. "The current application process requires those in need to go through their chain of command. That creates serious barriers to FSSA participation including shame, stigma, and fear of retribution."
They also recommend that the income qualification for FSSA be increased to what it now is for the USDA's Women and Infant Children (WIC) program, which is popular among military personnel and has a lower barrier for an entry than the SNAP program. Still other suggestions included removing BAH income from the household calculation, and moving the benefit to card form like SNAP, instead of simply a paycheck plus-up. Doing that would ensure that military members are actually spending the money on nutritious food.
"These reforms – most notably the automatic enrollment provision – will not only ensure a military force that is fully fit and able to serve, they will also provide the framework with which the Department can accurately and regularly monitor the need for FSSA within the ranks.," Leibman wrote. "Having accurate and timely information about nutritional challenges in our armed forces will enable the Department’s leadership to properly measure, identify and eradicate the problem with maximum efficiency."
Maz0n officials have also put together an online petition asking Hagel to alter FSSA. You can sign that petition here.
What do you think? Are you one of the handful of service member families who has used FSSA? Do you think making the benefit automatic is a good idea? Is this the solution to keeping military families out of food banks, or is the issue much more complicated than just the income to household size ratio?
Photo courtesy US Marine Corps.