Hunger in the U.S. Military: ‘Families have been struggling with this for a long time’
COVID-19 has caused hardship among the nation’s vulnerable, but a surprising issue is coming to the forefront that has been festering for many years; hunger in military families.
CBS News shared the story of Kay, a military spouse, who recently traveled to a food bank to feed her family of six.
“It lasts a couple of days, maybe just because there are so many of us in the house,” said Kay.
Her husband works at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. His take-home pay is roughly $3,000 a month, which falls short of their family’s expenses.
“I cannot feed my kids. I cannot make this vehicle payment because I had to feed my kids. It’s just unacceptable, really,” Kay said.
This story caused such outrage among news viewers that CBS raised approximately $300,000 to support local food banks after the piece aired. They are not alone in their outrage that service member families are going hungry.
“There is something that’s so unjust about it that the families who are making significant sacrifices for our country, and are not able to fully meet their basic needs,” Josh Protas, Vice President of Public Policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, told The New York Times. “The charitable sector doesn’t have the capacity to fully address this issue — nor should it. I really think the Pentagon has really tried to sweep this under the rug.”
Nearly 40 percent of active-duty service members have experienced food insecurity due to the pandemic, but the baseline rate of hunger in this community was already hovering around 15 percent. After years of resistance, military families are now more willing to ask for help, such as seeking assistance from food banks.
“We know that families have been struggling with this for a long time, but they have often done so quietly. But now we’re starting to see families open up a little bit more and seek out that support, which is really good news,” Shannon Razsadin, Executive Director of the Military Family Advisory Network, told CBS.
Multiple reasons exist why military families are particularly susceptible to hunger. One of the main difficulties is rooted in the mobile nature of domestic military work that has made already limited employment opportunities for spouses all the more difficult.
“What many people don’t know is that military families move, on average, every two and a half years. And every time families move, there’s a complete restart. That means looking for a new job, finding new child care, getting set up with new schools, finding a new home,” Razsadin said. “And with COVID, families have continued to move. And when you move in a market where you maybe don’t have as many housing options or the employment situation isn’t what it used to be, it has really created additional problems for military families.”
In addition, service families are more likely to have larger families. With school lunch programs suspended or operated with restrictions, a key support is no longer accessible and families are left with minimal resources aside from food banks to make ends meet.
Furthermore, not even all military families are currently eligible for nutritional programs. This is due to the structure of housing subsidies given to families that live off the main base; they receive an income supplement to pay for rent, which sometimes places them above eligibility cutoffs despite their obvious need. Service members who live in housing provided on the base do not get this extra income for rent, and are more likely to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
The Pentagon has brushed off this issue, saying most military personnel do not encounter food insecurity.
“Military members are very well paid,” said Major César Santiago, citing a recent study conducted by RAND National Defense Research Institute. “Junior enlisted members, on average, are paid better than 90 percent of the adult working population with a high school education and similar years of experience in the work force. The issue of food insecurity has been examined and found to be minimal in the military.”
With the Pentagon’s refusal to address the problem and the increasing strain on nonprofit organizations to fill growing gaps, Congress has stepped up.
In terms of long-term solutions for military hunger, bipartisan legislation was recently proposed to expand nutrition benefits targeted at military families. The Military Dependents School Meal Eligibility Act aims to automatically enroll children of eligible service members into school meal programs.
The American Rescue Plan tackles nutritional support and child well-being broadly, with key measures that will assist all families but will provide needed relief for military families. The Child Tax Credit provides additional income per child, which will be beneficial for struggling large families. The act also provides an additional $12 billion in food assistance through SNAP.