How DoD Misses the Mark on Food Insecurity

How DoD Misses the Mark on Food Insecurity
Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

DoD released the 13th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC) last month, a four-volume report designed to ensure the military compensation system meets the needs of servicemembers and remains a competitive compensation package to recruit and retain an all-volunteer force.


The report’s authors were tasked with taking a closer look at servicemember use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and while one of the report’s volumes deals with SNAP usage rates, it provides shaky figures and a very narrow view of food insecurity in the military.  


Overall, the QRMC left MOAA with more questions on food insecurity in the military than answers. As we continue to urge DoD to take a more comprehensive look at food insecurity and its impact on military readiness, here’s a review of the report and some key MOAA recommendations.


Report Struggles With SNAP Stats

According to the study conducted, an estimated 880 to 4,690 servicemembers are enrolled in SNAP. Most participants are junior enlisted with dependents. While these members may stay enrolled in the program for 5 to 29 months, junior enlisted usually promote quicker, meaning increased income and an exit from the program.


Between .08% and .42% of those who serve receive SNAP, per the report – much lower than the 9.6% civilian rate. Of the servicemembers enrolled in SNAP, most of them are in the Army (60%).


While these estimates suggest SNAP participation isn’t high in the military, they should be taken with a grain of salt:

  • The report pulled data from only two months – March and August of 2019, pre-pandemic data points that also come during peak military move season, making it difficult to track servicemembers by residency.
  • Forty percent of states opted not to share their SNAP data, including military-heavy (and expensive) California, Hawaii, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
  • The estimates fall well under those of other academic studies. One Government Accountability Office (GAO) study from 2016 on food insecurity in the military cited 2013 Census Bureau data suggesting 23,000 active duty servicemembers had used SNAP in the previous 12 months.


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MOAA’s Asks for DoD

In light of the report’s findings and challenges, MOAA has four recommendations for DoD as it moves forward in addressing food insecurity among military families:


Take a more holistic approach to understanding the extent of food insecurity and its impact on military readiness. DoD must recognize some military families facing food insecurity don’t qualify for SNAP. The barrier to participating in SNAP has led to thousands of military families seeking assistance from food pantries, many operating on or near military installations. Armed Services YMCA, one of the top food pantry providers at military installations reports a 400% increase in demand for assistance during the pandemic.


Additionally, the military has spent billions of dollars looking into obesity in the military, increasing the recruitment pool, and Total Force Fitness. Food insecurity plays a part in all of these; addressing it with a wider approach will create positive change for these key issues.  


Collect better data. The QRMC recommends DoD look into more ways to collect better SNAP participation data over longer periods of time. MOAA believes DoD should go further, expanding studies to include food security writ large to better understand the scope of food-insecure military families that may not qualify for SNAP.


The FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included language requiring DoD to conduct a more comprehensive assessment of food insecurity in the military. MOAA endorsed this provision and eagerly awaits the findings of the study, which were due to Congress May 1, 2020, and have yet to be released.


Re-evaluate implementing a Basic Needs Allowance. The proposed Basic Needs Allowance would give a monthly subsidy to servicemembers with a household gross income (not including the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH) at or below 130% of the poverty line.


While the QRMC recommended not reinstating the previous similar program called the Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance (FSSA) due to a small scope of recipients, the Basic Needs Allowance would have a larger pool of recipients thanks to excluding BAH from income.  It also would be automatic, unlike FSSA, which servicemembers had to request.


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The Congressional Budget Office estimates around 10,000 servicemembers would benefit from this program. Like the SNAP participation among servicemembers, the Basic Needs Allowance would not be a program servicemembers would rely on for extended periods of time but would provide much-needed assistance during temporary times of financial difficulty, mostly among junior enlisted.


Work with USDA to remove BAH from calculation for SNAP participation. Currently, BAH is included as income to determine SNAP eligibility, but it’s not considered income for similar programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – better known as WIC. MOAA believes BAH should be excluded from the eligibility calculation for SNAP so more food-insecure families can take advantage of the program.


We urge DoD to relay these recommendations to the Department of Agriculture and Congress so they may be considered in the next Farm Bill legislation. Unlike NDAA legislation, which is renewed every year, the Farm Bill is only typically renewed every five or six years.


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About the Author

Eryn Wagnon
Eryn Wagnon

Eryn Wagnon is MOAA's former Director of Government Relations for Military Family Policy and Spouse Programs