Thousands of military families face food insecurity, but the way the Department of Agriculture calculates eligibility for federal benefits is locking many of them out of assistance. A group of lawmakers are hoping to change that with the Military Hunger Prevention Act, reintroduced Thursday by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
The law would create a “basic needs allowance” for low-income military families who would otherwise qualify for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but for the fact that the program considrs basic allowance for housing – used to pay for off-base rent or mortgage – as income when calculating service members’ eligibility .
“Basically, what happens is right now, we know that there are many military families that have to rely on food stamps, that are food insecure, and many more that would qualify for the program, except that they can’t because their BAH was being counted against them,” Duckworth told Military Times on Thursday.
To get around that, the bill would supplement troops earning less than 130 percent of the poverty line, enough to bring them to that level.
The bill is co-sponsored by a group of 11 bipartisan lawmakers, and has a companion bill in the House.
An E-3 with a spouse and one child is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the USDA’s chart, but if they live off-base, the money they receive to secure their own housing is counted as part of their overall income.
USDA doesn’t calculate any other benefits this way, Duckworth said, so her legislation would put service members and civilians on par in their eligibility.
Food insecurity has been in the military family conversation for years. Duckworth first introduced a bill addressing military family food insecurity back in 2018, after learning of the issue while volunteering.
“And I saw the wife of somebody I knew, who was still actively serving, come through the food pantry,” she said. “And I, I had the same reaction, as most Americans. What do you mean, there are military families that are having to use food pantries? What do you mean, military families need to use SNAP benefits?”
This bill fixes a small part of the larger issue of military compensation, she said.
“The way the pay scales have been, is really based on a force that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “It’s based on a force that was mostly ... half the force is mostly younger and unmarried. Today, you have ... the most junior ranks of both commissioned and enlisted, those folks are married. So if you are a private and you are married with a child, you qualify for SNAP. And so we do need to take a look at the pay scales and how we deal with compensation.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect how the legislation would affect military families.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.