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No one joins the military to get rich. Many join out of a sense of pride, duty, and honor. All who join expect to earn enough money to put food on the table. Unfortunately for many military families, that’s just not the case.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life.” So how is it that a military family finds themselves without enough money to eat? A 2019 Military Family Advisory Network study reported that over 15% of America’s military families struggle to feed themselves and their families.
COVID-19 did a lot to change the way we operate and interact with one another. It also directly impacted the ability of many military spouses to work. The pandemic forced small businesses across the country to close, and millions of Americans fell on hard times. For military spouses who have long relied on installation-based jobs to help make ends meet, COVID-19 all but stopped their careers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, military spouses faced a 22% unemployment rate and a 26% wage gap compared with civilian counterparts before COVID. There are no current statistics yet of the number of military spouses unemployed due to the pandemic, but experts expect the numbers haven’t decreased. The 2019 Blue Star Military Family Survey reported that almost half of all military spouses report employment issues as their top concern with military life. On average, almost 80% of all military spouses report being underemployed, defined as being paid lower than their education or work experience. Without a steady second income, food insecurities compound for many military families.
With one spouse out of work and kids at home during the day, a single paycheck now has to be stretched even further. Hunger awareness groups have been raising alarm bells for years about the lowest-income families in the military. They have a set of challenges specific to their rank and branch and a set of circumstances that are very different from civilians.
Salaries for enlisted service members (E-1 to E-4) range between $20,172 to $27,684 annually. For families who live in high-cost living areas, that salary isn’t enough to cover basic expenses.
The USO reports that for families living in San Diego (the 12th most expensive city in the country), the average cost of living per month is about $2,660, which is $200 more than an E-4 makes monthly.
As a workaround, some families explore receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps. But their Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) can cause service members to lose their SNAP benefits since BAH is often counted as “income.” That puts military families right back where they started - hungry and worried.
Studies show that military families have been struggling with food insecurity for a very long time.
A 2014 study by Feeding America showed that 25% of all active duty and reserve service members rely on food pantries. About 23,000 military families use SNAP benefits, but so many others are ineligible because their BAH is counted.
A recent article in Military Spouse reflects, “Food insecurity does not discriminate. One small financial setback, unexpected bill, or change in residence can have a huge impact on a family’s ability to pay for food.”
For years, advocacy groups have been pushing for change that would allow SNAP benefits to be offered to military families in need. Others have advocated for higher military salaries. Access to affordable childcare coupled with military spouse unemployment also contributes to the financial challenges of military families. Making things even more difficult is that often service members are hesitant to apply for benefits or tell their leadership about financial challenges. Financial hardship is the primary reason a service member is denied a security clearance. Denied security clearance authorization can have a direct impact on a service member’s career. So that leaves military families stuck in the middle, looking for resources.
If your family is facing food insecurity, please know there are several organizations available to help. We’ve listed some of the most widely-known national food pantries and food banks. Remember that your community will likely have its own resources as well. Don’t be afraid to go off your installation if you need help. Additionally, get involved by calling your representatives, signing petitions, and advocating for the change you want to see in the military community.
If you’re considering exploring options to help with your family’s food insecurity needs, it’s helpful to know the difference between food banks, food pantries, and meal centers.
A food bank collects the unsold products from grocery stores, food drives, and elsewhere and then stores and redistributes them to food pantries and meal centers.
A food pantry is an individual site where those in need can go for food.
Meal centers offer free and reduced meals. These centers are also called food kitchens or soup kitchens. Most often, meal centers are operated by individual communities.
Here are several food pantries and food banks that can be a good starting point if your family faces food insecurity.
Ample Harvest connects those in need with home and community gardeners who donate the excess of their harvest.
Feeding America is the largest food bank network in the country.
Foodpantries.org provides a detailed list of food pantries. This organization also lists government and non-profit subsidized grocery resources.
PantryNet.org offers a database of food pantries, organized by region.
United Way Helpline Call 2-1-1 on your phone to be connected with a trained service provider who can help you locate food pantries in your area.
Why Hunger has both a website and phone option to offer up-to-date current information about local food banks. Visit the website or call 1-800-548-6479.
What to Expect when Visiting a Food Pantry
Usually, food pantries operate a lot like grocery stores where you can browse shelves to get what you need. Because of social distancing guidelines, that option isn’t available in all locations. Some food pantries are offering drive-up services as a contactless shopping option. Depending on where you live, food pantries might be attached to your local VA facilities.
Military Families Learning Network Food Insecurity Among Service Members and Veterans
Military Times COVID-19 exacerbates job woes for veterans, military spouses
Blue Star Family Pain Points Poll Deep Dive: UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF COVID-19