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Why soldiers are increasingly relying on food stamps

By Aimee Picchi/CBS News 4:09 PM February 17, 2014

Patrons of military commissaries used food stamps to purchase $103.6 million worth of groceries in fiscal 2013.

The recent surge in food-stamp spending has prompted some critics to worry that the $76 billion program is creating an over-reliance on government handouts.

What these critics may not realize is that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is also increasingly relied upon by members of the U.S. armed forces, with patrons of military commissaries using food stamps to purchase $103.6 million worth of groceries in fiscal 2013.

That’s a 5 percent rise from 2012, and almost double the $52.9 million spent in 2009. That’s a faster pace of growth than the general population, since overall SNAP spending rose just 51 percent from 2009 through 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One reason for jump in food-stamp usage among soldiers could be the relatively low pay awarded to junior members of the military, with the least experienced active duty soldiers bringing home a little over $18,300 per year. That would qualify a soldier living in a two-person household for food stamps.

But another significant issue facing military families is a relatively high unemployment rate for spouses, with female spouses between the ages of 18 to 24 suffering from a 30 percent unemployment rate, according to a February study published by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. That’s almost three times higher than their civilian cohorts, the study found.

To be sure, while base pay for soldiers is low compared with other civilian careers, soldiers can receive bonuses and non-cash compensation such as free or subsidized housing and education.

The commissary system is one benefit enjoyed by soldiers, with the Defense Commissary Agency operating stores at bases across the globe. Groceries are sold at about one-third less than at commercial prices, which can save a family of four about $4,400 each year, the agency notes on its Facebook page.

Still, pressure on soldiers’ grocery budgets may only increase. The Pentagon is considering increasing prices at the commissaries, one option that would keep the stores open, the Military Times reported earlier this month. The Department of Defense had earlier considered closing the stores.

At the same time, food costs are on the rise for both military and civilian families, with chicken prices jumping 18.4 percent since 2011 and ground beef now 16.8 percent higher.

While grocery prices are jumping, median income is growing by only 1 percent a year. At the same time, the food-stamp program will start phasing in cuts signed into law earlier this month. More than $8.7 billion in SNAP benefits will be cut over the next decade.

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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