Help Troops Stay Mission-Focused by Ending Food Insecurity

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A commissary employee stocks bananas at F.E. Warren AFB
A commissary employee stocks bananas at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., Jan. 28, 2021. (Charles Munoz/U.S. Air Force)

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins is president and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America. He served as a command pilot with more than 4,000 hours in fighter aircraft. During his career, he flew as a demonstration pilot for the European A-10 Demonstration Team and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. He retired from the Air Force as commander, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Command; commander, 11th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces; and commander, Alaskan North American Defense Region.

In the wide web of Defense Department budget debates and priorities, it's rare to hear about a longstanding issue faced by many young military families -- the simple need to keep food on the table.

Food insecurity affected 29% of junior enlisted personnel who responded to a recent Blue Star Families survey. These members must deal with this financial burden as they navigate the early stages of their military careers, and they must do so in many cases without the support offered to their civilian counterparts. Because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) factors in the military's housing allowance as income, many in uniform don't qualify for SNAP benefits.

And like many problems faced by the force, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have made things worse. This is especially true in the area of spouse employment: Almost half of working military spouses lost their job during the pandemic, leading to greater income uncertainty for many young military families. School and day care closures triggered by COVID-19 have created even more problems. Food banks near military installations are feeling the strain.

In nearly all cases, these families do not need substantial, permanent assistance. Most will see their financial situations improve as service members rise through the ranks. But there can be long-term, cascading effects. For some service members, it will mean a late start to contributing to their retirement fund. Some will seek savings by moving to cheap, and often unsafe, housing off post. Others will find themselves falling into the trap of payday loans and end up in a spiral of debt and discipline from their command.

Without help in the early stages of these careers, the military risks losing the investment it makes in these members. They'll seek other ways to feed their families and separate at the earliest opportunity, or they'll suffer on the job from the stress of their situation or from a simple lack of nutrition, putting their family's needs ahead of their own.

The Military Officers Association of America, or MOAA, and The Military Coalition have joined several advocacy organizations in tackling this issue -- most notably MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which has compiled a comprehensive, must-read report on the topic. One way to help that's within reach: The creation of a Basic Needs Allowance, which would be available to military members at or near the poverty line and would be scalable based on income. The average recipient would get about $400 a month, with the overall program cost estimated at $44 million a year.

Bipartisan legislation supporting this fix has been introduced in the House and Senate. Influential senators have asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to address the issue. As relief efforts continue for several sectors of society dealing with pandemic fallout, it's important that other lawmakers join this cause and ensure those who've signed up to defend our nation aren't left out.

Join MOAA and our allies in asking your members of Congress to act on behalf of these young military families.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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