Military service members on active duty spent $24 million in food stamps at military commissary shops from September 2014 to August 2015, and 45 percent of students in schools run by the military are eligible for free or reduced-price meal programs.
For years, the military has been embarrassed by reports showing that some active-duty service members struggle to feed their families and use government benefits to get by. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Defense (DoD) does not fully understand the scope of the problem.
The USDA runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the benefits of which are commonly called food stamps. Neither the military nor the USDA tracks how many active-duty service members receive SNAP benefits, according the report.
A provision in the 2016 defense spending bill encourages data sharing between the Pentagon and the USDA to address this problem, but the DoD does not have a coordinated effort underway to access that data through the USDA. The GAO concludes that without an interagency dating-sharing effort, the military will miss a valuable opportunity to understand the needs of its service members and address hunger within its ranks.
Abby Leibman, the president of MAZON, a Jewish anti-hunger group that runs a program focused on military families, testified before Congress in January that food insecurity among active-duty soldiers is triggered by a number of different factors, including low pay among lower-ranking enlistees, high unemployment among military spouses, larger household sizes, challenges around activation and deployment and unexpected financial emergencies.
She also said food pantries can be found at every military base in the country, and active-duty soldiers regularly show up at them, often in their uniforms, looking for help.
"Despite strong anecdotal evidence, food insecurity among military families is not adequately documented or monitored by government agencies, and indeed the problem has long been obscured and ignored," Leibman told a House agriculture committee. "Data [is] often withheld from the public or are excessively difficult to obtain. What data we have been able to secure are often contradictory, out of date or simply incomprehensible."
For example, recent USDA data states that about 2,000 active-duty service members are enrolled in SNAP, but estimates based on federal census data from 2014 put that number at 19,455. Experts say the sources of this data are unreliable for multiple reasons and Leibman called on the Pentagon and the USDA to work together to determine just how many military personnel receive SNAP benefits.
The number of food stamp dollars spent at military commissary stores steadily rose after the financial crisis of 2009 and peaked at $103 million in 2013. That number has dropped as the economy has recovered, but an unknown number of military families are still struggling with food insecurity. How can the DoD address this problem without first understanding its scope?
In a statement, Leibman said that anti-hunger advocates support the GAO's findings and its recommendation that the Pentagon gather more data to fully understand the "shameful incidence of hunger within the military."
"We urge collaboration among the Pentagon, the USDA and Congress to address this crisis," Leibman said. "It is inexcusable that those who courageously serve our country should struggle with hunger."
In their response to the report, military officials also agreed with the GAO's recommendations, but they have complained that collecting data on active-duty SNAP enrollees is difficult because the benefits are distributed by individual state agencies, making coordination a challenge.
Leibman and MAZON have also called on the government to remove barriers that prevent active-duty service members from receiving SNAP benefits. For example, a housing stipend offered to lower-ranking service members is considered income on food stamp applications, making many low-paid soldiers ineligible for the program.