For the past 50 years, Congress has reliably passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to set the policies and priorities of our nation's military. In early September, congressional deliberations will continue for this $700 billion-plus legislative package that determines the budgeting for the most critical elements of our national security, including military operations, major weapons systems and cybersecurity. While the NDAA also funds programs associated with military family life such as compensation and benefits, consistently lacking in the national dialogue is the long-overlooked and urgent issue of hunger and food insecurity among military service members.
According to Pentagon records obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request, approximately one-third of military children attending Department of Defense-run schools in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Not coincidentally, there is a food pantry operating on or near every military base in the United States, helping to put food on the tables of military families who struggle with hunger.
Sadly, the prevalence of military food insecurity is not an exaggeration but is a surprising and stark reality of military life in America. While every year Congress passes an NDAA to fund America's military defense operations, every year Congress also fails to include a provision to step up the base pay for America's lowest-earning military service men and women. The result is wide-scale food insecurity and hunger among U.S. military families.
As a former member of the U.S. Army and as the national board chairwoman of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the leading organization on this issue for nearly a decade, we say enough is enough. America's military service members are called upon to defend our great nation yet are literally struggling to make ends meet and going hungry.
West Virginia's military service members relying on their neighborhood food banks to put food on the table is emblematic of a systemic problem, and - as a matter of human dignity - must be resolved.
By keeping the "Military Family Basic Needs Allowance" in the final 2020 NDAA, Congress would provide a modest supplement to base pay for all service members earning at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. This would ensure that military personnel are able to provide the basic needs for their family members, including food, and would eliminate unnecessary anxiety associated with hunger and food insecurity.
As this year's NDAA advances, Congress has a window of opportunity to do the right thing and fix this unacceptable, yet easily addressed problem.
We urge West Virginia's congressional delegation - particularly Sen. Joe Manchin, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee - to prioritize this allowance in the final NDAA bill. With his voice, Sen. Manchin can bring pride to West Virginia's military personnel and play an instrumental role in helping Congress to finally address military food insecurity in America.
Let's ensure that no one goes hungry while they or their family member is serving our country. Our military families deserve better.
Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Liz Kanter Groskind is national board chairwoman of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.