To the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture: Keep our troops fed

This testimony was presented to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition on Jan. 12 

Distinguished members of the Subcommittee on Nutrition and Committee on Agriculture, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.

I am president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the U.S. and Israel. 

In response to learning that a startling number of our grantee partners were providing food assistance to a growing number of military families and veterans, MAZON’s board of directors has made these issues a core priority for our education and advocacy work.  Through an exhaustive search for accurate data from government and private sources, we learned the following:

First, we found that hundreds of thousands of veterans are experiencing food insecurity, and aren’t receiving assistance from their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other available benefit programs. 

Food insecurity among veterans — old and young — is nearly double the prevalence of food insecurity and very low food security among the general U.S. population. 

Second, we also uncovered serious indicators of food insecurity among members of the military who currently serve. 

The causes? Low pay among lower-ranking enlistees, high unemployment among spouses, larger household sizes, challenges around activation and deployment, and unexpected financial emergencies. 

How do we know this? In addition to reports from our colleagues’ operating food pantries, MAZON learned from a source at the Pentagon that there are food pantries operating on or near every single naval and Marine base in the United States. There can be no denying that food insecurity among military families is a painful reality.  

There are three important actions that we urge Congress to take now to begin addressing this growing problem:

Demand more data. Despite strong anecdotal evidence, food insecurity among military families is not adequately documented or monitored by government agencies. What data we have been able to secure are often contradictory, out of date or simply incomprehensible.

No one really knows the military and veteran participation numbers for government nutrition programs, let alone estimates for the true level of need in these populations. Accurate data is essential if our nation is to better understand the scope of food insecurity among military families and allow us to find the gaps and provide meaningful solutions.

Make no mistake: If even one military family goes without adequate, nutritious food, this nation is not meeting its responsibility to those who serve our country.  

But data alone is not the answer.

Congress must act to remove policy barriers. Federal policies are actually denying struggling military families the resources they need to prevent food insecurity.

Including military members’ Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as income when determining eligibility for SNAP is not only inconsistent with the treatment of BAH by other federal programs, it has made thousands of struggling families ineligible for vital SNAP benefits. In order to survive, they are turning to food pantries on and off military bases.

The BAH is excluded as income for the purposes of calculating income taxes and eligibility for Women, Infants and Children and Head Start programs. The BAH should be consistently excluded as income for the purposes of determining eligibility for all nutrition assistance programs. 

We urge agency collaboration. For veterans, this is not only essential; it is becoming a matter of life and death. A growing number of veterans — particularly disabled veterans — are caught in the middle of bureaucratic delays and federal agency silos, unaware of or unable to access nutrition assistance benefits despite their obvious need.

For veterans awaiting a disability determination, delays and multiple appeals are commonplace, with the process lasting almost a year in some communities. During this time, these men and women are unable to access nutrition assistance benefits and have literally nothing to eat.

What can we do? We can start by ensuring that the government agencies charged with caring for these people actually communicate with each other — VA social workers can use a simple food-insecurity screening tool and refer those who screen positive to resources that support access to adequate, healthy food, including SNAP. 

Perhaps the best way to prevent hunger among veterans is to protect and strengthen the SNAP program.  Right now, an estimated 60,000 veterans face the loss of SNAP benefits because of the expiration of the time limit waiver for people classified as able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs. Cuts to SNAP hurt millions of Americans, including, military families and veterans.

This reality of limited data, unfair policy barriers and bureaucratic silos comes at a time when the need among military families and veterans has never been greater. 

The principle of leaving no one behind is deeply embedded in the ethos of the United States military. Unless Congress acts now, we are surely leaving these families behind and in the enemy hands of hunger and poverty.    

If not now, when? If not you, then who?

MAZON welcomes the opportunity to work with Congress to create lasting and meaningful change to meet the needs of our military and veterans’ families. Thank you.

Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

Letters to the editor: BDS, UCLA and the VA

The Why, Not the What

Jared Sichel’s article on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at UCLA is a thoughtful exposure of the current tactics used by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) groups to push their agenda on that and other campuses (“Battleground California,” May 30). However, Sichel appears to have tried so hard to be objective that he failed to point out the core principle of the BDS movement.  

As stated clearly in the “BDS Call,” the BDS movement insists on the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state via the fictional “right of return” for millions of descendants of Arab refugees from the war against the nascent state of Israel in 1947-48. Groups that support BDS, such as SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, oppose peace with a Jewish State of Israel within any borders at all. To them, Tel Aviv is just as much “occupied Arab land” as Ariel. It would have been a service to your readers had Sichel posed a simple question to both Taher Herzallah and Estee Chandler: “If Israel were to withdraw to the 1949 armistice line and allow the creation of a state of Palestine in that area, would you then support peace between it and the Jewish state?” Their answer, of course, would be “no” — putting the lie to their claim that they favor “peace.”  

Michael Harris, San Rafael 

Supporting Our Troops Shouldn’t Have an Expiration Date

As a recently retired 32-year Veterans Administration (VA) employee, I can provide an additional, insider’s view to David Suissa’s recent column on the VA debacle (“Anatomy of a Scandal,” May 30). Put simply, the basic problem is “metrics” and money; it is not VA employees’ lack of will to do their jobs well. In various fields, arbitrary metrics were created by VA Central Office bean-counters with no real experience doing the work purportedly measured and without input from those actually doing the work.  It is reported that a VA medical center’s managers in Phoenix allegedly fudged their metrics to get bonuses. Unfortunately, failure to meet ill-advised metrics could also get you punished. 

Why the metrics? I believe they were a defensive maneuver to avoid budget-slashing by those in Congress ideologically motivated to starve the federal government (while still collecting their own Washington salaries). That the VA suffered less of a funding hit than other federal agencies is not the same as getting resources adequate to increased demands on the system. For years, VA employees have struggled to do more with less. Over a 20-year period, staffing in my office dwindled from about 30 to 12, including part-timers. Admittedly, some were typists replaced by computers and professional-level employees doing their own typing. Still, while there were no layoffs, those leaving were not replaced. Those outraged congressmen should look in the mirror and realize lack of resources produces lack of timely services.

Phyllis Sorter, Santa Monica

I am both a veteran who is cared for at the VA and a physician who has worked at the VA. I agree the Jewish community hasn’t shown much interest toward tikkun olam as far as the VA is concerned.

Forcing Eric Shinseki out won’t change anything without a radical overhaul of the administrative system, not the medical care. As noted in the article, this has been going on for years, with many empty promises to correct it.

The essence of the problem is the bureaucrat. As a result of President Kennedy allowing federal employees to unionize, there is essentially no accountability and no motivation to perform, much less excel, and this is glaringly evident at the VA. It is nearly impossible to fire anyone. VA staff, notably the overpaid managers, can devolve into ineffective, supine and uncaring personnel, without consequence. The administrators no longer see veterans as human patients, but as numbers — with bonuses resulting from producing good statistics. There are too many administrators, and few of them are veterans. It is more important at a VA to be politically correct, repeatedly undergo vapid training courses and produce copious reports than be a high-functioning, caring administrator or provider of health care.

There are good VA doctors and nurses, but the reputation of the VA unfortunately lies with bad ones. The pay for doctors and nurses is not competitive with the communities they live in, and so it is hard to get higher-quality personnel. 

Until accountability is guaranteed and enforced, nothing will change. Politicians will continue to offer worthless promises; still people will suffer and people will die. 

Alan Spira, San Mateo

Schools of Thought

Gina Nahai — I was one of those nerds in South campus who secretly admired the North campus students for their freedom to think, debate and be creative, while we were too busy trying to get into med school (“Hallowed Ground,” May 30). I share your same sentiments. Beautifully stated.

Afshine Emrani via

Anatomy of a scandal: Barack Obama and the VA

Recalling the story of an 89-year-old South Carolina veteran who committed suicide after being repeatedly denied access to health care, the candidate bellowed: “How can we let this happen? How is that acceptable in the United States of America? The answer is, it’s not. It’s an outrage. And it’s a betrayal — a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”

That was presidential candidate Barack Obama in May 2008, six years before his Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be accused of covering up its failure to properly care for ailing veterans, keeping secret lists of patients waiting for treatment, with dozens of veterans allegedly dying in the bureaucratic darkness.

These accusations are the tip of the iceberg. “They are deep, system-wide problems, and they grow more concerning every day,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state.

There’s been an odd silence in the Jewish world about this embarrassing episode of the Obama presidency — and I count myself in this group. But in the wake of Memorial Day, the story caught my attention, so I asked myself: If we’re supposed to honor those who died for our country, what about those who fought and survived?

“It is hard to imagine leaving our veterans to wither and die after they’ve survived enemy fire and war,” Kathleen Parker wrote in The Washington Post.

“If you’ve ever been seriously sick, or helped a family member who is, you know how dark it can get,” John Dickerson wrote in Slate. “Now imagine if you experienced it with the inefficiency of the worst experience you’ve ever had with customer service. That’s what’s happening in some cases at Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals around the country.”  

Politicians can’t claim to have been blindsided by this government malfunction. As Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting noted on National Public Radio, “The idea that the VA has been manipulating data on wait times was in an inspector general’s report in 2005, again in 2007, again in 2012. … So it all goes to the question of accountability.”

Who should be held accountable?

It’s true that President Obama shouldn’t be blamed for the influx of wounded veterans from a war he didn’t support, but, as leader of the country, he personally committed to veterans that he’d take on this “outrage” and “betrayal.”

On a deeper level, though, this saga is a reminder of how much government — and even more so big government — depends on competent management. Obama’s heart was surely in the right place, but did he have competent people in the right places? And did he have the managerial skills to live up to his lofty promises?  

“It’s an especially dangerous scandal for President Obama,” wrote Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times, “because it fits into an established narrative about his presidency: that he’s a skilled politician and speechmaker but a lousy manager.”

In Obama’s case, it’s a double whammy: managerial weakness coupled with a nearly blind faith in big government, which typically means throwing big money at problems and hoping for the best.

The VA’s core problem isn’t money. As retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs noted on MSNBC, because of the big increase in wounded veterans, the VA was among the few departments to receive more funding following forced sequestration cuts in 2013.   

“It doesn’t matter how much money you give them,” he said. “The structure of the Veterans Administration health business is not organized in order to deliver health care. Unless … you break it down and have a public/private partnership, you’re not going to give health care to veterans who really need it.”

Great leaders know when to get their hands dirty. If they see signs that things are failing, they roll up their sleeves, rack their brains and use their authority to make things better. They do it because they remember their promises. They don’t wait for CNN to turn a problem into a scandal.

Of course, it’s not easy for a president who worships big government to acknowledge that a government program isn’t working — and that more money won’t fix the problem. Bill Clinton was a Democratic president who could take on big government. Obama isn’t. 

“To admit that our government bureaucracies and our hulking programs are too big to succeed … is to admit to a failure of ideology,” The Washington Post’s Parker writes. “The president likely knows this in his heart, which may be why he prefers being surprised by news than collapsing under the burden of being wrong.”

We can’t expect Obama to reform the VA any time soon, but we can expect him to go beyond damage control and put a priority on saving lives. (I wonder how many vets are presently on bureaucratic death row.)

The Jewish community, and all Americans for that matter, must make more noise. We must urge our president and Congress to take whatever steps they can to make sure that ailing veterans are no longer fatally stricken by the disease of bureaucratic ineptitude.

As a presidential candidate once said so eloquently, anything less would be “a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

The Mensch List: A magical ability to conjure up fun

California “Super Lawyer”/magician Stephen M. Levine likes to joke that he can make legal troubles disappear. Ditto for rabbits and quarters.

Unfortunately, he can’t make the same promise about the troubles facing all of the people he meets through his volunteer performances — sick kids at a children’s hospital, aging amputees at a Veterans Administration (VA) campus.

“It tugs at you,” Levine, a father of two, said. “You wonder, are they going to be around next year?”

But the Agoura Hills resident — also known as Stephen the Spectacular — does what he can to at least bring a smile to their faces. Despite working full time as a real estate and business trial lawyer, he regularly trades in his briefcase for a magic wand.

“I do it because I love performing for the kids,” Levine said. “I enjoy it — to make people feel good, to give them that sense of wonderment.”

Sometimes he is paid when he performs, but Levine believes it’s important to give back, too. A member of the Magic Castle’s outreach committee, he was among those who strolled through a group of 4,000 veterans, active-duty personnel and their families, doing magic for nearly five hours during a recent holiday event — only to leave for another charity event. 

Adept at stage, parlor and close-up magic, Levine has opened his bag of tricks for schools, synagogues, senior living facilities, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the VA, an autism support group and other places. Sometimes he’s there to help with fundraising, other times he just wants to spread a little fun.

Don’t assume Levine’s work is only about catering to kids. These days, parents and grandparents may need to believe in a little magic, too.

“Adults, I think, want to believe more, especially in these times. They want to be able to suspend reality,” he said.

Levine, 50, grew up on Long Island in New York, where he first got into magic as a preteen. He gave it up when he went to college, only to rediscover the skill much later as a means of calming his then-3-year-old daughter.

These days, he’s well practiced. He can make your body levitate and your head disappear. 

Perhaps his best tricks, though, have nothing to do with magic. At The New Shul of the Conejo in Agoura Hills, for example, he founded the Men’s Club and is currently the group’s president. In this capacity, he’s helped initiate things like family hikes and single-malt scotch tastings.

“For a lot of guys, especially ones that work, it gives them a sense of camaraderie and community,” he said.

And as the head of Friends of the Agoura Hills Library, he’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years by assisting with its used-book store, the Book Cellar. That money pays for periodicals, programming and more.

No need to thank Levine for any of this, though. Really. He remembers some veterans in wheelchairs who once tried.

“I said, ‘No. Thank you. I appreciate what you did for this country.’ ”