Thousands of military families struggle with food insecurity
San Diego It’s a hidden crisis that has existed for years within one of the most funded institutions on the planet and has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. As many as 160,000 active duty military personnel are having trouble feeding their families.
This estimate by Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks across the country, underscores how long-term food insecurity has spilled over into every aspect of American life, including the military.
The exact scope of the problem is a subject of debate, due to the lack of a formal study. But activists say it’s been around for years and mainly affects junior service members – from E1 to E4 in the military parlance – with children.
“It’s a shocking fact known to many food banks across the United States,” said Vince Hall, government relations officer for Feeding America. “This should be a cause for deep embarrassment.”
The group estimates that 29% of soldiers in the ranks of the younger conscripts experienced food insecurity within the previous year.
“It’s what it is,” said James Bohannon, 34, a 3rd Class Navy officer in San Diego who relies on food aid to feed his two daughters.
“You know what you’re up to in the military,” he said, after getting out of a drive-through food distribution organized by the local YMCA Armed Services Branch. “But I’m not going to lie. It’s really hard.”
In addition to the modest salary of young recruits, the frequent moves inherent in military life make it difficult for military spouses to find steady work. And the military’s internal culture of self-sufficiency also leaves many reluctant to talk about their difficulties, for fear of being considered irresponsible.
The problem has been compounded by a vague Department of Agriculture law that prevents thousands of needy military families from accessing the government’s SNAP assistance program, known as food stamps.
It’s one of those things that the American people don’t know about, but of course it’s an issue among members of the military. “We know this,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former Black Hawk pilot who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq. “We are the most powerful army on earth, and yet those in the lower echelons of our military ranks are – if they are married and have a child or two – they are hungry. How can you focus on carrying out the mission and defending our democracy. If you are concerned about whether Is your child going to have dinner or not?”
Meredith Knopp, CEO of a food bank in St. Louis and an Army veteran, said the problem involves all branches of the military. She remembers being a young officer in Texas when a new soldier approached her with a baby.
“They were preparing to cut 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 is is that a powerful network of charities adjacent to the military such as the YMCA Armed Services and Blue Star families have developed food-bank infrastructure near most major local bases.
San Diego may be one of the epicenters of this phenomenon, with rising housing costs and multiple military bases within driving distance. For Brooklyn Bateman, whose husband Matthew is in the Navy, moving to California from West Virginia this year has been a financial shock.
“We accumulated good savings and then we moved here and it was tough,” she said. “We still have student loans and everything is above everything else.”
Their savings quickly vanished, and the small income she earned in kenneling didn’t come close to covering the shortfall. For a while, the couple thought about sleeping in their car on the base floor until the next paycheck.
Pittman was one of 320 families who participated in the YMCA’s armed forces food distribution in late October. The organization has been hosting such events for more than 10 years, but when the pandemic hit, it expanded operations from six locations to 11 nationwide and doubled the pace of San Diego-area events.
There is a diversity of opinions about the extent of the stigma this issue carries within the military communities.
Kelly Color, who works on food insecurity issues for the Blue Star family, recalls a time of financial hardship 13 years ago when she was a young mother in Texas whose husband had just joined. The family pinched pennies at every opportunity, never ate outside and relied on the local public library for their entertainment. But they still rely on WIC – a similar program to food stamps that serves mothers and children – in order to pay for infant formula for her infant daughter.
“I was embarrassed to withdraw my coupons,” she said. “But at the same time, I was thinking ‘Does it have to be that hard? “”
Clore remembers treating her financial problem as a taboo subject, even suspecting that several families around her were in the same situation.
“It seemed like it wasn’t something she shared with others,” she said.
But Maggie Meza, representative of the Blue Star Families in San Diego, remembers community poverty as a shared knowledge and an element of bonding between families.
It was like, ‘Your husband is a sergeant, and my husband is a sergeant. We’re both broke. Let’s go find some free stuff,” she said.
One of the strangest aspects of the problem is the vague Department of Agriculture regulation that prevents thousands of needy military families from obtaining food stamps. Families living off basic land receive a basic housing allowance to help cover most of their costs.
But the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act states that the allowance counts as income in calculating eligibility to receive SNAP benefits, and that ends up alienating thousands of military families. The allowance does not count as income for tax reasons or WIC benefits.
Food security activists say they are confused by the original rule and the fact that it has been going on for more than 12 years.
“Nobody seems to know why it’s still legal,” said Hall, the Feeding America official.
Doreen Ocamp, chief development officer for the YMCA Armed Services, predicted the regulation was “just a case of unintended consequences.”
Senator Duckworth added, “I couldn’t tell you where it came from. I can only tell you they wouldn’t change it.”
A USDA spokesperson said in an email response that the department is “taking a fresh look at our authorities in relation to this policy.”
The issue is more than just a humanitarian problem. This directly affects national security, said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON, an organization that has done extensive research on military starvation.
He said that food-insecure members of the armed forces are more likely to be dispersed in the field and less likely to be re-recruited. This talent loss may be generational because military service tends to run in families.
“We are hurting future recruitment efforts,” Protas said. “We can lose good people because they can’t provide for their families.”
Many people involved in the case criticized the Pentagon for turning a blind eye to the problem.
“The Pentagon’s denial was frustrating,” Brutus said. “It’s embarrassing for our leaders to admit the problem.”
Colin Heflin, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said the Pentagon’s lack of interest has led to a severe lack of appropriate study or data. “In my experience, it’s hard to explain to Department of Defense officials,” she said. “They find it embarrassing and something they don’t want to admit.”
But Ocamp responds to criticism that the military is burying the case.
She acknowledges that there are “some optics that people are trying to work on” but says that most base leaders would welcome help and notes that the Navy literally owns the San Diego property where ASYMCA food is distributed.
“I think the military knows this is a complex issue and they are counting on partners like us,” she said. “This notion that the Army wants to wipe this thing under the rug… so why would they let us continue to do this on Navy land?”
Some who have complained about the Pentagon’s reluctance to confront the issue say the situation has changed in recent months under President Joe Biden’s administration.
Shannon Rasadin, president of the Military Family Consulting Network, says she sensed a change in attitude toward the Pentagon this year, and partly credits First Lady Jill Biden for her public advocacy of the issue.
“They are focused on understanding it at the Pentagon,” she said. “Six months ago, I wouldn’t have said that.”
Efforts to secure Pentagon comment on the issue were unsuccessful. But a Pentagon official told The Associated Press that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be speaking publicly on the subject in the near future.
There are new attempts by Congress to address the problem. Duckworth sponsored a bill that would establish basic needs allowance payments for military families in need. Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, has appealed for the Pentagon to take a serious look at the problem and repeal the USDA’s basic allowance for housing regulation.
“At this point, there is no excuse for anyone at the higher levels of the Pentagon to say they don’t know this is a problem,” McGovern said. “It’s not rocket science. This is solvable…Someone takes responsibility and solves it.”
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