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Military families struggle with food insecurity
Thousands of military families struggle with food insecurity
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SAN DIEGO — It’s a hidden crisis that has existed for years inside one of the most well-funded institutions on the planet and has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. As many as 160,000 active-duty military members are having trouble feeding their families.

That estimate by Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks around the country, underscores how long-term food insecurity has extended into every aspect of American life, including the military.

The exact scope of the problem is a topic of debate, due to a lack of formal study. But activists say it has existed for years and primarily affects junior-level enlisted service members — ranks E1 to E4 in military parlance — with children.

“It’s a shocking truth that’s known to many food banks across the United States,” said Vince Hall, Feeding America’s government relations officer. “This should be the cause of deep embarrassment.”

The group estimates that 29% of troops in the most junior enlisted ranks faced food insecurity during the previous year.

“It is what it is,” said James Bohannon, 34, a Naval E4 (petty officer third class) in San Diego who relies on food assistance to keep his two daughters fed.

“You know what you’re signing up for in the military,” he said, after emerging from a drive-thru food distribution organized by the local Armed Services YMCA branch. “But I’m not going to lie. It’s really tough.”

In addition to modest pay for junior enlisted ranks, the frequent moves inherent to military life make it difficult for military spouses to find steady work. Also, the internal military culture of self-sufficiency leaves many reluctant to speak about their difficulties, for fear they will be regarded as irresponsible.

The problem is exacerbated by an obscure Agriculture Department rule that prevents thousands of needy military families from accessing the SNAP government assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.

“It’s one of these things that the American people don’t know about, but it’s a matter of course among military members. We know this,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former Blackhawk pilot who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq. “We’re the mightiest military on the face of the earth and yet those who are on the lower rung of our military ranks are — if they are married and have a child or two — they’re hungry. How can you focus on carrying out the mission and defending our democracy. If you’re worried about whether or not your kid gets dinner tonight?”

Meredith Knopp, CEO of a food bank in St. Louis and an Army veteran, said the problem cuts across all branches of the military. She recalls being a young officer in Texas when she was approached by a new private with a baby.

“They were getting ready to turn off his electricity because he couldn’t pay his bills,” she said. “It was shocking to me.”

Perhaps the best indication of how entrenched the problem has become is that a robust network of military-adjacent charitable organizations such as the Armed Services YMCA and Blue Star Families has developed an infrastructure of food banks near most major domestic bases.

San Diego may be one of the epicenters of the phenomenon, with high housing costs and multiple military bases within driving distance. For Brooklyn Pittman, whose husband, Matthew, is in the Navy, the move to California from West Virginia this year was a financial shock.

“We had a nice savings built up and then we moved out here and it was rough,” she said. “We still had student loans and everything on top of everything else.”

Their savings quickly disappeared and the small income she earns from dog-sitting didn’t come close to covering the shortfall. For a while, the couple considered sleeping in their car on the base grounds until the next paycheck.

Pittman was one of 320 families participating in the Armed Services YMCA’s late October drive-thru food distribution. The organization had been hosting events like this for more than 10 years, but when the pandemic struck, expanded operations from six sites to 11 around the country and doubled the frequency of the San Diego-area events.

There’s a diversity of opinion as to how much of a stigma the issue carries within military communities.

Kelly Klor, who works on food insecurity issues for Blue Star Families, recalls a period of financial hardship 13 years ago as a young mother in Texas whose husband had just enlisted. The family pinched pennies at every opportunity, never eating out and relying on the local public library for entertainment. But they still depended on WIC — a similar program to food stamps that serves mothers and children — in order to afford expensive baby formula for her infant daughter.

“I felt embarrassed pulling out my vouchers,” she said. “But at the same time, I was thinking ‘Should it be this hard?’”

Klor recalls treating her financial trouble as a taboo subject, even through she suspected many families around her were in the same situation.

“It seemed like it wasn’t something that you share with other people,” she said.

But Maggie Meza, a Blue Star Families representative in San Diego, recalls the communal poverty as common knowledge and a bonding element among families.

“It was like ‘Your husband’s a sergeant, my husband’s a sergeant. We’re both broke. Let’s go find some free stuff,’ “ she said.

One of the strangest aspects of the problem is a mysterious Agriculture Department regulation that prevents thousands of needy military families from receiving food stamps. Families living outside the base grounds receive a Basic Allowance for Housing to help cover most of their costs.

But the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act dictates that the allowance counts as income in calculating eligibility to receive SNAP benefits, and that ends up disqualifying thousands of military families. The allowance doesn’t count as income for tax reasons or for WIC benefits.

Food security activists say they’re confused by both the original rule and the fact that it has endured for more than 12 years.

“No one seems to know why it’s still a law,” said Hall, the Feeding America official.

Dorene Ocamb, chief development officer for the Armed Services YMCA, speculated that the regulation is “just a case of unintended consequences.”

Added Sen. Duckworth: “I couldn’t tell you where it comes from. I can only tell you that they won’t change it.”

A spokesman for the USDA said in an email reply that the department is “taking a fresh look at our authorities with respect to this policy.”

The issue is more than just a humanitarian problem. It directly impacts national security, said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON, an organization that has done extensive research on military hunger.

Armed forces members enduring food insecurity are more likely to be distracted in the field and less likely to re-enlist, he said. That talent loss may be generational because military service tends to run in families.

“We’re doing a disservice to future recruitment efforts,” Protas said. “We could be losing good people because they can’t support their families.”

Several people involved in the issue criticized the Pentagon for turning a blind eye to the problem.

“The denial by the Pentagon has been frustrating,” Protas said. “It’s embarrassing for our leaders to acknowledge the problem.”

Colleen Heflin, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said the lack of Pentagon interest has led to a critical shortage of proper study or data. “In my experiences, it’s hard to explain this to Department of Defense officials,” she said. “They find it embarrassing and something they would not like to acknowledge.”

But Ocamb pushes back against the criticism that the military is burying the issue.

She acknowledges that there are “some optics that people are trying to work around” but says most base commanders welcome the assistance and points out that the Navy literally owns the San Diego property where the ASYMCA food distributions take place.

“I think the military knows this is a complex issue and they rely on partners like us,” she said. “This concept that the military wants to sweep this under the rug … then why do they let us keep doing this on Navy-owned ground?”

Some of those who had complained about Pentagon reluctance to face the issue say the attitude has changed in recent months under the administration of President Joe Biden.

Shannon Razsadin, president of the Military Family Advisory Network, says she has felt a change in attitude from the Pentagon this year, and partially credits first lady Jill Biden for publicly championing the issue.

“They are focused on understanding it in the Pentagon,” she said. “Six months ago, I wouldn’t have said that.”

Efforts to secure Pentagon comment on this issue were unsuccessful. But a Pentagon official told The Associated Press that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would be publicly speaking on the subject in the near future.

There are fresh attempts by Congress to tackle the problem. Duckworth has sponsored a bill that would establish a Basic Needs Allowance payment for military families in need. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., has appealed for a serious Pentagon study of the problem and a repeal of the USDA’s Basic Allowance for Housing regulation.

“At this stage, there’s no excuse for anyone in the top echelons of the Pentagon to say they don’t know this is a problem,” McGovern said. “It’s not rocket science. This is solvable ... somebody take responsibility and solve it.”


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Scout donated flag drop box to Longview for Eagle project
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A Longview Boy Scout on Veterans Day paid tribute to his country by unveiling his Eagle Scout project — a box for retired American flags placed outside the city’s police station.

Joseph Egbe Jr., 17, led a group that included city and scout officials gathered for the ceremony in the Boy Scout Oath as the first flags were placed in the box that was made in a partnership with Keep Longview Beautiful. The flags will remain in the box until they can be properly retired.

The Longview High School senior and senior patrol leader with Troop 613 said he decided to take on the task to introduce a new service to the Longview community.

“I’ve noticed lately, or at least in my later years of scouting, that I’ve seen U.S. flags that have been tattered, stripped down or just unused in trash bins or even recycle bins for that matter,” Egbe said. “I feel like the U.S. flag, it represents America as well as my morals, so I feel like it deserves a more proper way to retire them.”

Egbe said his decision to donate the drop box to the city is “a small token of my gratitude for what this beautiful city represents to me and my family.”

Egbe was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and later moved to Beaumont, though he said he loves Longview.

“I’d say around first grade, that’s when I actually moved here, and ever since, then I’ve made connections with so many wonderful people and had so many memories here,” Egbe said. “Longview is truly a place that’s developed me to the way I am today.”

Egbe said the box was placed outside the Longview police station because it is a safe spot with good lighting and is convenient for residents.

A group of Longview police officers gathered for the ceremony, along with city leaders, council members, Executive Director of Keep Longview Beautiful Kim Casey and Mayor Andy Mack. Fellow scouts joined to support Egbe along with his family.

After deciding he wanted to do a U.S. flag drop box, Egbe said he began researching groups in Longview that focused on the community. He said when he found Keep Longview Beautiful, he realized “they were the perfect fit for bringing this project into fruition.”

Egbe applied for a grant with the nonprofit, and a few days later learned from Casey that he had been awarded $1,000 for the project. The estimated total cost of the project was about $4,000.

“To supplement the rest of that, we made a GoFundMe (page). We were able to raise over $2,000 and the rest came from my father and my banking account,” Egbe said.

Egbe and his father constructed the drop box by hand, along with the concrete slab that the box is attached to. It is mainly made of stainless steel and took one to two months to complete, Egbe said.

“I hope it stays on there for a while because we screwed it in pretty tight and we kicked it, moved it, thrown it, and it’s pretty sturdy too. Let’s hope it stays that way for years to come,” Egbe said.


UK's Johnson: Climate deal sounds 'death knell' for coal
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Associated Press

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the U.N. climate summit as a “game-changing agreement” that sounded the “death knell for coal power” on Sunday — although he added that his delight at the progress on fighting climate change was “tinged with disappointment.”

Johnson said it was “beyond question” that the deal coming out of the Glasgow conference marks an important moment in the use of coal because most of western Europe and North America have agreed to pull the plug on financial support for all overseas fossil fuel projects by this time next year.

But in a major shift demanded by coal-dependent India and China, the Glasgow Climate pact used watered-down language about “phasing down” the use of coal instead of “phasing out” coal. Johnson, however, said the compromise did not make “that much of a difference.”

Ending coal is seen as the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause the Earth to warm up and produce rising seas and more extreme weather including droughts, storms and wildfires.

“It’s an immense thing to get a commitment from 190 countries to phase down or phase out coal,” Johnson told a press conference. “The direction of travel is pretty much the same.”

Still, he acknowledged that some countries did not live up to the ambition of the summit. He accepted that the Glasgow summit did not deliver the “full solution” to climate change, but said the world was “undeniably heading in the right direction.”

“We can lobby, we can cajole, we can encourage, but we cannot force sovereign nations to do what they do not wish to do,” he said. “It’s ultimately their decision to make and they must stand by it.”

He and conference President Alok Sharma both underlined that the Glasgow Climate Pact was the first time that coal had been mentioned in U.N. climate agreements. But Sharma said China and India would have to “justify” their actions.

“On the issue of coal, China and India are going to have to justify to some of the most climate vulnerable countries what happened,” he told Sky News on Sunday.


White House
White House confident Biden's bill will pass House this week
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s top economic adviser expressed confidence Sunday that the White House’s $1.85 trillion domestic policy package will quickly pass the House this week and said approval couldn’t come at a more urgent time as prices of consumer goods spike.

“Inflation is high right now. And it is affecting consumers in their pocketbook and also in their outlook for the economy,” said Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council.

“This, more than anything, will go at the costs that Americans face,” he said, before adding that the House will consider the legislation this coming week. “It will get a vote, it will pass.”

The House has been moving toward approval of the massive Democrat-only-backed bill even as the measure faces bigger challenges in the Senate, where Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have insisted on reducing its size.

In a letter Sunday to Democratic colleagues, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., counseled “time and patience” for working through a bill of this size.

Consumer prices have soared 6.2% over the last year, the biggest 12-month jump since 1990. Deese acknowledged that prices may not fully return to a more normal 2% level until next year due to the lingering effects of COVID-19, but he said the measure will go a long way toward “lowering costs for American families.”

“We’re confident this bill, as it moves through the process, is going to be fully paid for, and not only that, it’s actually going to reduce deficits over the long term,” he said.

Biden on Monday planned to sign a related $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a bipartisan effort that was passed earlier this month after the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged action on Biden’s broader package expanding health, child, elder care and climate change by mid-November.

House progressives had threatened to hold up the infrastructure bill without a firm commitment of immediate action on the broader package.

House centrists say they will vote for the package as early as this week if an upcoming Congressional Budget Office analysis affirms White House estimates that the bill is fully paid for. The measure would be covered with changes to corporate taxes, such as a new corporate minimum tax, while raising taxes on higher-income people.

On Friday, Pelosi wrote Democratic members reaffirming her plan to push ahead soon, noting that CBO estimates released so far on pieces of the plan have been consistent with White House projections.

“We are on a path to be further fortified with numbers from the Congressional Budget Office,” she said.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of 13 House Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill, said he’s not convinced that the broader package will get House approval this week.

“I don’t think the votes are there yet,” he said. “A good number of Democrats had demanded and are going to receive a CBO report as to whether is, it really paid for? What does it do when you expand Medicare? What does that do to the solvency?”

“Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to get these answers ... for Pelosi to get the votes set before the end of the week.”

The bill is expected to face changes in the Senate. With Republican opposition and an evenly split 50-50 Senate, Biden has no votes to spare.

Manchin in particular has been vocal about the risk of aggravating budget shortfalls and already has managed to bring the bill down from Biden’s original $3.5 trillion price tag. Last week, Manchin again sounded the alarm over “the threat posed by record inflation.”

Deese appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week” and Upton spoke on CNN.


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