DOD Needs More Complete Data on Active-Duty Servicemembers' Use of Food Assistance Programs
GAO-16-561: Published: Jul 15, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2016.
What GAO Found
Active-duty servicemembers and their families have access to food assistance through various government and charitable programs, but use of these programs varies, in part, on their ability to meet specific eligibility criteria. In an April 2010 report, GAO identified 18 government programs that provide food assistance to low-income households. Servicemembers may apply for and, if they qualify, receive benefits from any of these programs. However, servicemembers' eligibility for these programs can vary by program and location. For example, GAO found that it might be easier for servicemembers to qualify for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) than Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because WIC allows state agencies to exclude portions of a servicemember's pay when determining eligibility and SNAP does not. Also, charitable organizations, such as food pantries, are available to servicemembers in need of food assistance.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has some data on servicemembers' use of food assistance programs it administers, but it does not know the extent that servicemembers use such programs because (1) it is not fully collecting or analyzing such information within the department, and (2) it has not coordinated with organizations such as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to access their data on servicemembers' use of their programs. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government state that management should use quality information to achieve its objectives. DOD has data on the number of servicemembers' children receiving free and reduced-price school meals at DOD Education Activity (DODEA) schools in the United States. For example, DODEA data for September 2015 showed that 24 percent of children in DODEA schools in the continental U.S. were eligible for free meals and 21 percent were eligible for reduced-price meals. A DOD survey also provides some information on servicemembers' use of food assistance programs such as SNAP. However, this survey is of limited usefulness in part because it does not inquire about other food assistance programs used by servicemembers such as National School Lunch Program; also no office within DOD is monitoring food assistance needs such as through survey data. Without more complete survey data, DOD will not understand the prevalence of need among servicemembers to effectively target its support and determine if it should assign department-level responsibility for monitoring food assistance needs.
Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government also state that management should communicate with external parties to obtain needed information. USDA has access to data on servicemembers' use of food assistance programs, but none of the DOD officials with whom GAO spoke were aware of efforts by the department to coordinate with USDA to access these data. For example, USDA administers SNAP benefits that, according to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau survey, were used by about 23,000 active-duty servicemembers in the previous 12 months. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a provision to address the sharing of SNAP data between USDA and DOD; however, DOD does not have a coordination effort underway to access such data. Without such coordination, DOD will miss the opportunity to collect data on the needs of its servicemembers.
Why GAO Did This Study
According to the Defense Commissary Agency, servicemembers on active duty spent over $21 million in SNAP benefits at commissaries from September 2014 through August 2015. This suggests that people serving our country may be having difficulty making ends meet. House Report 114-102 includes a provision that GAO review food assistance programs available to servicemembers. This report assesses, among other things, the extent to which (1) active-duty servicemembers and their families have access to food assistance programs and any variations in eligibility for these programs, and (2) DOD has identified the servicemembers' use of these programs. GAO reviewed information on government and charitable food assistance programs and policies. GAO also interviewed DOD and service officials at four installations that were selected based on size, cost of living, and presence of food assistance programs.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that DOD (1) revise surveys of servicemembers to collect and analyze more complete data and, if warranted, implement actions such as assigning department-level responsibilities for monitoring food assistance; and (2) coordinate with USDA to access its usage information. DOD concurred with the first recommendation and partially concurred with the second, stating that it has tried to coordinate with USDA. GAO continues to believe the recommendation is valid, as discussed in this report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) concurred with this recommendation and has taken action to implement this recommendation. DOD revised the questions on the September 2016 Status of Force Survey of Active Duty Members (SOFS-A) to include questions on whether servicemembers and their families had in the past 12 months run out of food, skipped meals, or were unable to eat balanced meals due to a lack of money. The survey also included questions on whether the servicemembers or their families had used food pantries in the past twelve months and asked the servicemembers to identify the factors that had contributed to their food concerns and/or need to use a food pantry. Finally, the survey included questions on the extent servicemember had ever applied for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), whether they were currently receiving SNAP benefits, their paygrade at the time they first started receiving SNAP benefits, the total number of people in the household when they first started receiving SNAP benefits, and how long they have received SNAP benefits. DOD officials reviewed the results of the 2016 SOFS-A and found that a very low percentage of active duty members received food assistance. Therefore, they decided not to take further action at that time. However, they said they would continue monitoring the results of future SOFS-A survey data and add more questions as needed.
Recommendation: To more fully understand the food assistance needs that exist for active-duty servicemembers and their families, and to help ensure that DOD effectively targets its support to those in need of assistance, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to revise, as appropriate, any existing data-collection mechanisms, such as periodic surveys, to collect and analyze more complete data on the use of food assistance programs by servicemembers and their families and use the data to determine if any further actions are needed, such as assigning responsibilities at the department-level for monitoring the use of food assistance programs by active-duty servicemembers.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: DOD partially concurred with our recommendation. As of April 2018, DOD has not developed a means of obtaining data on servicemembers' use of food assistance from the USDA or other organizations that could have such information. DOD stated in its comments to our report that it has tried in the past to obtain SNAP data from USDA but was unable to because the data is maintained at the state level. DOD believes the answers to the survey questions contained in the Status of Forces Survey - Active Duty Members (SOFS-A) provide a representative picture of service member's food assistance use to include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They are working with USDA to revise the survey questions for the 2018 SOFS-A to capture additional data beneficial to DOD and USDA. DOD reported that the 13th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC) is exploring the feasibility of having DOD enter into data sharing arrangements with states to obtain information about active duty military members' use of SNAP. GAO recognize the inherent complexity of interagency coordination but believe DOD should continue its dialogue with USDA to find ways in which it can leverage their access to data that would provide valuable insights into servicemembers' needs. Without more complete data, DOD will continue to have a limited understanding of servicemembers' food assistance needs and whether further actions are needed to help ensure that the basic needs of servicemembers and their families are met.
Recommendation: To more fully understand the food assistance needs that exist for active-duty servicemembers and their families, and to help ensure that DOD effectively targets its support to those in need of assistance, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to coordinate with USDA to leverage its access to data on active-duty servicemembers and their families who use its programs and services and consider outreaching to other organizations that have data on servicemembers' use of food assistance.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense