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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Drew Meuer: Too many military families worry about food on their tables

By Drew Meuer Second Harvest Inland Northwest

In my first decade at Second Harvest, hunger in our military ranks was little more than a blip on our radar screen. But like other things, the COVID-19 pandemic made it painfully clear that many people serving in our military, and especially their children, often don’t have enough to eat.

Which is just wrong, on so many levels.

Fortunately, the issue of food insecurity among those who serve our country has come to the fore, which is an important step in fixing the problem. Our congressional delegation is fighting hard to make a difference locally:

•Sen. Patty Murray helped secure the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance as part of the broader National Defense Authorization Act, which awaits the president’s signature. It will provide up to $400 a month to military households at or below 130% of the official poverty level. This measure was also championed by Rep. Marilyn Strickland (WA-10), Rep. Adam Smith (WA-09) and several others in our delegation.

•Our own Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-5) is an original co-sponsor of the Military Dependents School Meal Eligibility Act, which is designed to qualify nearly all children of entry-level, active duty service members for school lunch programs.

Alongside Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia), McMorris Rodgers chairs the Congressional Military Families Caucus, which recently held its annual summit (virtually), which included a session on addressing military hunger.

•The Bob Woodruff Foundation and Veterans First have provided Second Harvest with funding to underwrite several of our Mobile Markets at Veterans Administration centers across Eastern and central Washington, as well as Fairchild Air Force Base.

We deeply appreciate the fact that our elected officials from both sides of the aisle are working to help reduce the problem. While their approaches to tackling hunger in the military may be modestly different, they are making significant efforts to care for those families who may be facing hunger.

There are several factors that lead to food insecurity among our military. For starters, an E-1 Airman Basic in the Air Force starts at $21,420 a year. Another is that military spouses have a particular challenge in getting or holding a job because they are required to move frequently. Yet another is a quirk in federal regulations (now being addressed in the NDAA): Military families who live off base get a modest housing allowance, but that same allowance increases their income to just barely over the level allowed to receive SNAP benefits, disqualifying them for SNAP.

Because it’s been an under-the-radar issue, there’s not a lot of data regarding military hunger. What is available is discouraging; the Military Family Advisory Network conducted a survey and found that 1 in 5 military families report food insecurity. Similarly, the Blue Star Families organization determined some 90,000 people in uniform struggle to feed their families.

More than 160,000 service members and their dependents call Washington home, and Fairchild Air Force Base employs nearly 12,000 people, making it the largest employer in our region. More than 5,000 of those folks are active military. According to the Fairchild AFB 2020 Annual Report, people stationed here at some point of their career like to stick around, or move back to Eastern Washington; there are more 9,000 retirees within 50 miles of the base.

That’s great news. The bad news is too many veterans also face hunger. That’s why our partnership with the Bob Woodruff Foundation and Veterans First is so important – it enables us to hold mobile markets at locations accessible to many veterans, including VA centers in our region. (Our core job as the food bank for food banks across 26 counties in Washington and North Idaho is to distribute food to some 280 partner organizations. Mobile Markets, which typically provide food for up to 250 families, are a supplement to that).

The women and men who serve in the military make many sacrifices that benefit the rest of us. Worrying about whether they, or their kids, have enough food shouldn’t be another thing they need to worry about.

Drew Meuer is chief of staff at Second Harvest Inland Northwest, which partners with 280 food pantries, churches and schools across 26 counties in Washington and Idaho to help provide food to those in need.

This guest opinion has been updated to correct the name of the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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