Nonprofit targets food insecurity in military

Mazon President  Abby J. Leibman submitted testimony to the House Subcommittee on Nutrition.
Mazon President Abby J. Leibman submitted testimony to the House Subcommittee on Nutrition.

Food insecurity is a pervasive problem among military and veteran families, the leader of a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger in the United States and Israel told Congress.

“Across the country, service members were, and still are, showing up at food pantries, sometimes in uniform, looking for help in feeding their families,” Abby J. Leibman of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger said in testimony submitted Jan. 12 before the House Subcommittee on Nutrition.

Leibman, Mazon’s president and CEO said, “While many emergency food providers have responded by developing specific and innovative programs to assist food-insecure military families, most of these organizations are strapped by increasing demands for services in general and have limited capacity to address this population.”

There is a food pantry on or near every naval and marine base in the United States.

The Jewish Family Service of San Diego, a partner with Mazon, runs two food distribution sites exclusive for military families in the San Diego area, one of which is on base at Camp Pendleton.

Some 130 families use the services, receiving $100 worth of healthy food, including fresh produce, which JFS distributes once a month, according to Rachel Isaacson, food drive and distribution specialist. As of last June, she said, JFS served approximately 250 repeat clients and about 170 onetime clients.

Part of the cause of food insecurity are federal policies that make lower-ranking service members, especially those with families living off-base or in private housing, ineligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP), Mazon said. The basic allowance for housing is excluded when tabulating income eligibility for some federal programs, like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Head Start, but included for others. Mazon advocates for excluding the basic housing allowance for the purpose of eligibility for all nutrition assistance programs.

Erika Tebbens, a former military spouse who struggled with food insecurity and began working with Mazon a year ago, drove this point home for the subcommittee.

Tebbens left her job as a teacher when her husband was assigned to the Kitsap Peninsula in the state of Washington. Her job prospects were few and became fewer when her son Jack was born. Tebbens could work only when her husband was off-duty, as the family could not afford childcare and, like many military families, did not have family or friends nearby.

Her civilian physician told her about WIC. While the family qualified for that federal program, it did not qualify for SNAP, though both programs fall under the Department of Agriculture.

“We were left wondering how we were going to survive even while my husband went to work serving his country,” Tebbens said.

“One woman said that her son came down with a serious illness and she wasn’t working while her husband was deployed,” said Isaacson.

But despite this widespread need, most active duty military members are reluctant to speak out.

An advocate who came to take testimony at one of the Camp Pendleton distribution sites was met with resistance. “We find that clients are much more likely to talk to staff members and less likely to speak to outside organizations,” said Isaacson. “There’s a lot of internal pressure not to speak out if you need access to emergency food services.”

A quick look at comments left on a review of Mazon’s testimony shows a deep divide, with plenty of commenters offering up “life is not fair” and “stop spending money frivolously” response.

It strikes a nerve, said Josh Protas, director of government affairs at Mazon, because taking care of military families and veterans is supposed to be a national, bipartisan concern.

“It raises a more uncomfortable question of are we paying our lower-ranking members enough?” he said. “People don’t want to open up that can of worms.”

He added, “When you dig down deep, there’s an embarrassment about the situation.”

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