Defenders call for ‘urgent’ action to end food insecurity for military and veterans

Homeless and foraging for food, Navy veteran Tim Keefe said his condition “turned to that of a caveman” when he fell through hard times due to an injury from work after leaving the service. Each month he hitchhiked 25 miles each way to a food bank, where he could fill his backpack with enough food for two weeks.

“When you’ve gone a few days without food, your whole being screams it out in desperation that I can’t explain,” he said the day before Veterans Day, testifying at a hearing on the hunger among the military and veterans before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Surveillance and Departmental Operations. Due to work requirement rules, he was only qualified for three months of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Advocates have urged lawmakers to take action to address food insecurity issues in military and veteran communities.

“Your leadership and that of administration and agency officials are urgently needed to chart a different course,” said Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “Military and Veteran families have been allowed to go hungry under your watch.

“Your inaction has allowed this situation to persist for years and to worsen during the pandemic.”

MAZON has led efforts for nearly a decade to address these hunger issues and has often been criticized or ignored, she said.

The subcommittee heard from a variety of witnesses, “to seek solutions to ensure that no veteran or military feels the sting of hunger,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Jahana Hayes. , D-Conn. The Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over food-related policies, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Hayes said statistics from the Department of Agriculture indicate that an average of 1.2 million veterans participate in SNAP each year, but some estimates indicate that up to 60% of eligible veterans do not participate in the SNAP. program. Food insecurity particularly affects former combatants who have recently left the service, are of lower rank or are in rural areas that have limited access to food, she said. “Their hunger can also be exacerbated by physical and mental health issues, including service-related disabilities. “

She noted that according to the USDA, 22,000 SNAP households included service members in 2019, and it is likely that this is only the tip of the iceberg, as many military families face barriers to access SNAP.

“No one should ever go hungry in America. However, it is particularly infuriating to see those who have dedicated their lives in the service of our nation struggling to put food on the table, ”said Hayes.

The problem is complicated, with many contributing factors including the financial strain caused by the military lifestyle which can impact life after service, and reluctance on the part of military and veteran families to admit that they need help feeding themselves because of a perceived stigma. The issues are different for serving military personnel than they are for veterans. As lawmakers discussed solutions to ensure that no military or veteran family had to struggle to put food on the table, they also discussed the continuing lack of data on the scale of the problem, and views were divergent.

“I’m also concerned that veterans … are struggling to make ends meet,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Citing the need to help them make the transition. For food insecurity among the military, he said he wanted to hear from the military, including senior officials, about the extent of the problem among those currently serving. If it’s an endemic problem, he said, Congress can adjust pay levels. He said he tried to invite a Defense Ministry official to the hearing, but they did not accept the invitation.

Representative Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Said hunger among the military and veterans “is not a new problem,” and added that “the powers that be have done nothing about it. The Pentagon has known this for years, and yet they haven’t come to the Hill to ask that we not count housing allowance in total income so that people in difficulty can actually get SNAP. … And they did not shake the trees for better compensation for the enlisted men and women.

“We know there is a problem. Anyone who suggests there is no problem ignores the reality “about hunger among veterans and the military,” McGovern said. “This is not a new revelation. We’ve known this for a long, long time. The question is, are we going to do something about it? …

“… As Veterans Day approaches, let’s all decide that by next year we will have done something. … We can really help improve people’s lives.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., Said he is “taking a little problem” with Hubbard’s criticism that no one has tried to fix the problem, noting that lawmakers have tried to include a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill that would exclude BAH $ 500 from the income calculations used to determine eligibility. Because MAZON and others opposed it, it was abandoned. “Maybe it wasn’t enough, but it was something. … We certainly want to solve this problem. I commit to working with [other committees] to find a way to alleviate this problem.

He noted that a Congress-mandated report on food insecurity in the military has been delayed by the DoD and is now expected for March 31, 2022.

Other lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., Have also expressed concern that little data is available on the extent of the problem. MAZON’s Hubbard said the issue of data is important and that the federal government has not collected it, although it has the capacity to do so. Families can’t wait for more data, she said. “Families can’t eat another hunger study,” she said.

Congress should work with the administration to study and document the full extent of military hunger, and release comprehensive data, Hubbard said, and Congress should reconsider military pay levels, she said. declared.

Needs of populations currently in service in relation to ex-combatants

Hubbard said MAZON’s proposal for a Basic Needs Allowance to help low-income currently serving military families now enjoys broad support in the House and Senate. “We need your support to cross the finish line,” she told lawmakers.

Hubbard also said the administration must take executive action to ensure that the basic shelter allowance is not counted as income when determining eligibility for federal food programs such as SNAP.

For military families, there are some root causes that contribute to financial insecurity, said Denise Hollywood, community and program manager for Blue Star Families.

These root causes include issues such as spousal unemployment, which is exacerbated by the lack of affordable child care; moving expenses not reimbursed; and housing costs. These can contribute to food insecurity, Hollywood said. “Financial stress and the stigma of seeking help can often be compounded” when the military leaves the military, she said.

Solutions for the financial resilience of military families and for de-stigmatizing the need for assistance can help prevent veteran hunger downstream, she said.

A nurse who works for the Veterans Health Administration urged lawmakers to strike a balance between the need to address immediate food shortages and the need to address the factors that contribute to food insecurity. Discussions with veterans indicate that the first six to 12 months after separation is the high risk time for food insecurity, said Nipa Kamdar, who has conducted several studies on food insecurity affecting veterans. She testified as a private citizen, not on behalf of the VHA.

She suggested that as the army transitions, officials could help veterans enroll in the VHA so that they have access to health care and other support services such as social workers. Veterans should also receive information on SNAP and be encouraged to seek help, she said.

But there are also issues with the SNAP rules, Keefe said.

After leaving the Navy, Keefe suffered an injury on the job and underwent two years of surgery and therapy. His worker’s compensation from the Ministry of Labor was exhausted and he sought help from SNAP. He received three months of SNAP benefits, for $ 194 per month, but his benefits were later cut, he said, due to work restrictions, although the Labor Department said he was medically unable to work.

SNAP’s work restrictions have unintended consequences for ex-combatants, he said. “I felt like there was a crack that I fell through, a catch-22 that opened up in front of me and engulfed me.

“Is risking your life enough work?” “

Within a year of ending his SNAP benefits, Keefe filed appeal after appeal and his health suffered as he lost weight. “I had to add seven holes to the belt I was wearing to keep my pants in place,” he said.

SNAP benefits would have greatly improved his health, he said. After about a year of appealing the decision, he turned 50, aging outside of SNAP’s work restrictions, and began receiving SNAP’s $ 194 monthly benefit, or about $ 6.45 per day. Since he was able to eat, it didn’t take long for his health and energy to improve, he said, and he started to tackle other areas of his life and returned to work. .

“We need to educate other veterans who are not disabled but who come back into society with the unique experience of having to adapt from a combat zone to everyday life,” Keefe said. “We can certainly feed them.

“When I was sworn in in the Navy in Boston, I was ready and willing to give my life for this country. It seemed that during this time I couldn’t even get them a sandwich. “

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for over 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families “. She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Florida, and Athens, Georgia.

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