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Report: 160,000 US troops struggling to feed their families even with $753B defense budget

Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Alex Rios, helps a family select food items during a food drive at the San Diego Armed Services YMCA, Nov. 21, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cory A. Booth/Released)
November 24, 2021

About 160,000 U.S. service members are struggling to feed their families, despite the $753.5 billion defense budget for 2021, according to a new study by Feeding America.

The new Feeding America study, published last week and first reported by the Associated Press, estimates 160,000 active-duty military service members are having a hard time feeding their families.

The exact number of U.S. service members struggling to feed their families is under debate as there has been no formal study on the matter, according to the Associated Press. Feeding America believes junior service members — particularly those between the ranks of E1 and E4 — have been struggling with the issue for years, however.

Feeding America estimated about 29% of service members in those junior enlisted ranks have faced food insecurity within the past year.

“It’s a shocking truth that’s known to many food banks across the United States,” Vince Hall, Feeding America’s government relations officer, told the Associated Press. “This should be the cause of deep embarrassment.”

Food insecurity persists in the military even after Congress approved a 2021 defense budget that included $705.4 billion in discretionary spending, $10.7 billion in mandatory spending and $37.3 billion in non-Department of Defense (DoD) defense-related, for a total defense budget of about $753.5 billion for the year.

While leaving a drive-through food bank organized by a San Diego-area Armed Services YMCA branch, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Bohannon (a Navy E4), described having to pick up food donations to help feed his two daughters.

“It is what it is. You know what you’re signing up for in the military,” Bohannon said. “But I’m not going to lie. It’s really tough.”

Adding to the challenges of food insecurity among military families is a Department of Agriculture rule that bars military families from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. The rule, contained in the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act, states military housing allowances count as income, which can raise one’s income calculation above the maximum level for SNAP eligibility.

“It’s one of these things that the American people don’t know about, but it’s a matter of course among military members. We know this,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a combat-wounded U.S. Army veteran said of the food stamps rule.

“We’re the mightiest military on the face of the earth and yet those who are on the lower rung of our military ranks are — if they are married and have a child or two– they’re hungry,” Duckworth added. “How can you focus on carrying out the mission and defending our democracy if you’re worried about whether or not your kid gets dinner tonight?”

Concerns about food insecurity have been also been worsened by COVID-19 pandemic-related effects on the economy.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed concerns about food insecurity during a Nov. 17, press conference.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic and tight housing markets across the country have made financial struggles even tougher,” Austin said. “With the holidays approaching, I know that this is on the minds of our military communities. And it’s certainly top of mind for me.”

Austin announced the DoD has temporarily raised the Basic Allowance for Housing in areas that have had a 10 percent increase in rental costs in 2021, and said he directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness “to develop a strategy and implementation roadmap within 90 days to strengthen food security across the force.”

“Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about,” Austin said. “Basic necessities, like food and housing, shouldn’t be among them. This is a readiness issue. That’s why I’m focused on making sure that our service members and their families have what they need to thrive—so that they can focus on the hard work of defending our nation.”