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Food insecurity a problem within the US military. ‘It’s a bit of a touchy subject’

Airmen receive food from members of the Chaplain Corps and dorm leadership on Beale Air Force Base, California, April 18, 2020. The event was held, in part, to show the Airmen that they are cared for. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jason W. Cochran)

Military families are increasingly turning to food banks as they struggle to put food on the table.

According to a 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey by Blue Star Families, 14% of active-duty service members reported experiencing food insecurity.

Thurston County Food Bank executive director Robert Coit told The News Tribune about 8 percent of the food bank’s clients, about 1,500 families, identify as military households. Coit added that many families choose not to disclose that information.

During an interview with CBS News in March, Desiree Alvarez, whose husband is a private at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic she has had to consistently rely on the food bank to feed her family.

“We couldn’t go a full week without having to go get help from a food pantry,” Alvarez told CBS. “These kids are worth it, like, our family is worth it. We’re worth getting the help that we need.”

At a March town hall on military hunger, Sue Potter, the executive director of Nourish Pierce County, said the most vulnerable families tend to be those living off-base because their wages aren’t able to cover the high cost of living.

“It’s a bit of a touchy subject,” Potter said during the virtual town hall, held by Food Lifeline, a branch of Feeding America. “The enlisted folks don’t want to admit they have an issue, and the folks in command don’t want to recognize that their soldiers are struggling with something as basic as food. “

On JBLM, the Directorate of Personnel and Family Readiness (DPFR) offers assistance to families who are struggling, including financial counseling. Alecia Grady, the director of the program, said DPFR usually directs service members to Army Emergency Relief or the Air Force Aid Society, both of which provide families with no-interest loans or grants to cover food assistance, rent or vehicle repairs.

“That happens often, especially with our lower ranks,” Grady said. “They’re not making a lot of money, and we’re in a high cost of living area.”

According to a report from the Military Family Advisory Network, one in eight military families report being food insecure. Military families in Washington reported the fifth highest frequency of food insecurity.

About 23,000 military families use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, according to a 2016 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, provides food assistance to 38 million Americans annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. However, many military families don’t qualify for SNAP because of the way their income is counted. For instance, service members that live in private off- or on-base housing receive a housing allowance which the SNAP program considers as a form of income.

Some surveys suggest that the issue comes down to the fact that unemployment among military spouses is drastically higher than the national average. According to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey from Blue Star Families, 20% of enlisted spouses who are unemployed reported experiencing food insecurity compared to 10% of spouses are have full or part-time employment.

The Department of Defense estimates the jobless rate for military spouses is 22%, but other estimates put the rate closer to 35%.

“What people often don’t understand is that military families move about every two-and-a-half years,” said Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. “That means looking for a new job, finding new childcare, new schools and a new home. When you move to a place with limited housing options or limited employment options it can create additional problems for military families.”

At the Food Lifeline virtual town hall on military hunger in March, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said there’s been an increasing focus on the “totality of service members’ needs,” but one of the problems is access to information.

“I’ve heard statistics from when I first ran for Congress about how many service members are below the poverty line, how many are having to access assistance programs, but we don’t really know what the numbers are or who they are,” Smith said. “I think we need, and I’m going to work this year to try to get, provisions in the defense bill to keep track of that data, not only so that we can know, but so we can get them the economic assistance they need to make ends meet.”

The $700 billion defense bill for 2021 was passed Jan. 1 with the first and only veto-override of the Trump administration. But the battle over the fiscal year 2022 budget has already begun. In March, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee asked the Biden administration to consider a 3 to 5 percent spending increase in this years bill, and last week, a group of 50 House Democrats asked for “significant” cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.

The official spending request from the Pentagon is not expected to be filed until May.

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