Serving and Hungry: The Farm Bill Is a Mixed Bag for Military Families

Stricter eligibility requirements for SNAP will likely drop some service members from the program.

(Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

When Congress finally passed a budget deal last year, one cut was included in the bill that neither Democrats nor Republicans planned on allowing to happen: a small reduction in pension payments for 750,000 veterans. It was unexpected because when it comes to benefit programs, service members are deservedly sacrosanct in the eyes of the government: They're owed for their sacrifice. And just this week Congress approved a new bill to restore the full pension payments. The cut in nutrition assistance that will soon hit military families that rely on food stamps, however, isn't being treated so expediently. 

Which is not to say that the cuts won't have an impact: Representatives from groups supporting military families say they’re seeing plenty of food insecurity in their consultations with service members. And amid a conversation about nutrition assistance that tends to generalize recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and other federal benefits as “entitled” or “takers,” nobody is ready to label the more than 5,000 military families receiving SNAP as such. Same goes for the more than 900,000 veterans the Department of Agriculture says live in households that receive food stamps.

Still, the newly signed farm bill, which authorizes federal spending on a litany of farm- and food-related programs, may not hold much for these families, according to Joyce Raezer, executive director of National Military Family Association, a nonprofit that supports and protects service members and their families. The bill cuts $800 million annually from the SNAP budget (close to $9 billion over the next decade) and makes it harder to qualify for food stamps. Raezer says that while her organization is still analyzing the bill to see how it will affect military members, many families who need a little extra assistance getting food are not eligible to receive the benefit.

“The Department of Defense emphasizes that about 5,000 active-duty troops qualify for SNAP. That number will probably go down because of the cuts,” she says, noting that other funds put into the stimulus in 2009 have dried up too. Those hardest hit are the many young military families. "Military pay isn’t great, but when you add up the allowances and such, it is OK for a single person. It can be very difficult for families with children, especially if you have a spouse that isn’t able to work.”

Many more families live “on the financial edge” but do not qualify for federal benefits because of the unique way the Defense Department calculates income: It adds in subsidies for housing and other allowances, for instance, in calculating average earnings, Raezer says. However, BeneStream.com, a benefits consulting company that studied the issue in 2009, estimated that 130,000 service members would be eligible for SNAP if it weren't for Defense's liberal accounting. Part of the problem may be that since the start of the Great Recession, the military has been actively recruiting service members with families—the population most financially vulnerable and susceptible to food insecurity, says Raezer.

“The military lifestyle itself puts some of these young families at a disadvantage,” Raezer says. “Everybody does get a paycheck, but there are some that are having a hard time at the end of the month.”

Another place Raezer looks for answers is the on-base commissaries, which have seen a boom in SNAP-benefit spending over the last few years. In fiscal year 2013, $103 million worth of food stamps was redeemed in commissaries on military bases, according to Defense Commissary Agency data—a number that has risen steadily since 2009. While the Department of Defense doesn’t track who is using SNAP (commissaries cater to reserves, civilians, and recently retired service members as well as active-duty personnel), the increase suggests a growing food insecurity problem within the military community.

Service members will often stop being eligible for nutrition following a pay raise associated with being promoted to higher ranks, officials say, but active-duty personnel are not eligible for promotion. Neither are veterans and retired military, who can face unemployment—and thus food insecurity—on returning from duty. Last fall, the Center on Budget Priorities and Policies issued a report studying the impact veterans would experience from November’s cuts and the then-unofficial reductions expected in the 2014 farm bill. The $500 million SNAP cut that occurred on Nov. 1 hit vets especially hard, reducing the average benefit by 7 percent per family, or $1.40 per person, per meal. 

Veterans did get some good news from the farm bill on the ag front. The bill authorizes more than $400 million in spending on programs to help beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmer initiatives over the next 10 years—an increase of 154 percent over the previous farm bill. It also created the position of military veteran agricultural liaison at the United States Department of Agriculture, which will help returning military veterans pursue careers in agriculture and assist them in accessing USDA programs.

Raezer says she applauds these inclusions in the farm bill because active-duty families are often worried about their transition back to civilian life. She’s also concerned that too few of them are receiving the assistance they need while in the military, either because of narrow qualifying standards or the stigma some associate with getting help from the government.

“I want military families to take advantage of any support program they are eligible for, whether it’s offered by the Department of Defense or another government entity,” she says. “Currently serving military families are very proud. Historically, many of these families have not wanted to apply for what they perceive as welfare. That has changed, and that is continuing to change, because of increased outreach about the programs.”

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