Hunger rates for military families vex Pentagon despite special aid

May 08, 2024

This story was originally published on Agri-Pulse and written by Fran Howard. ©2024 Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


The Defense Department and some members of Congress are looking at ways to reduce skyrocketing rates of food insecurity among families of active duty military personnel.


Persistent hunger problems have continued despite a special stipend enacted in 2021 to help armed service members and their families cope with everyday living expenses.


One out of four active duty military and their families cut back on quality and variety of food and one in 10 skip meals or eat less because of financial stress, according to a new study by USDA’s Economic Research Service. The study found that more than 25% of active duty military are food insecure, compared with only about 10% of adult civilians.


The disparities become starker when looking at the most severe level of food insecurity experienced by military personnel and their families. An estimated 10.5% of the military population experienced “very low food security,” the report said, compared to only 3.6% of civilian adults.


The findings are line in with a 2023 Rand study, “Food Insecurity Among Members of the Armed Forces and Their Dependents,” which showed nearly 26% of active duty troops were food insecure in 2018. The study was ordered by Congress in 2020.


“Readiness is a cornerstone of military service,” the ERS report said. “Military readiness includes cognitive and physical abilities to train and execute missions. Previous studies among civilians demonstrate that food security is associated with cognitive function and body mass index. Therefore, food security is vital to maintaining military readiness.”



The reasons for food insecurity in military families are numerous, said Shannon Razsadin, CEO of the Military Family Advisory Network. “It’s a really complicated issue.”


Service members and their families are vulnerable to food insecurity because of instability in household income and frequent transfers, spouses at a disadvantage in the labor market because of long hours put in by the service member, deployment schedules and frequent relocations, she said. Income of military families tends to be lower compared to similar civilian households because military spouses are more likely to be unemployed or work fewer hours.


On average, military personnel are transferred every 2 1/2 years, Razsadin said, and that means that spouses often need to quit jobs to move. In essence, she said, spouses are looking for jobs instead of growing their careers.


“Every time they move, they need to do a restart,” Razsadin said. “For instance, if they participate in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and move to another state, they will need to re-enroll. There are hidden out-of-pocket expenses every time they move. In addition to gaps in nutrition program coverage, they are digging into their budgets to pay first and last month’s rent,” she added.


Using data from the 2018 and 2020 Status of Forces Survey of Active Duty Members and the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, ERS researchers compared food security in the military and civilian populations. Similar to prior studies among the civilian population, they found that active duty service members who were younger, had lower education levels, and had an unemployed spouse were at an elevated risk of food insecurity.


Salaam Bhatti, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program director at the Food Research and Action Center, feels the level of military food insecurity is “unacceptable, especially when solutions exist.”


In a 2023 report, “Strengthening Food Security in the Force: Building on Our Progress,” the Department of Defense (DOD) lays out a road map to increase food security among military personnel.


“You can’t look at food insecurity in the military and think there is one solution,” Razsadin said; it is, instead, a product of cascading events happening in the lives of these families. Research conducted by MFAN showed that unemployment of spouses, growing families, frequent moves and unexpected expenses were the leading contributors. It said that increasing troops’ pay would help overcome these challenges, especially among young service members, she said.


The Pentagon has requested a 4.5% pay raise for troops in 2025, but some members of Congress said they would like to see hikes targeted toward junior enlisted service members. The House Armed Services Committee Quality of Life Panel has recommended a 15% pay raise for junior enlisted personnel in the Servicemember Quality of Life Improvement Act. However, the Biden administration has resisted proposals for dramatic pay changes until the DOD completes a scheduled quadrennial review of military compensation.


In its fiscal 2025 budget, DOD sought to expand the number of troops who qualify for the Basic Needs Allowance by raising the household income cutoff from 150% of federal poverty guidelines to 200%.


The Basic Needs Allowance became law in 2021, and troops must have at least one dependent to qualify. So far, not many take advantage of the monthly stipend, which can reach $1,000.


According to Stars and Stripes, a family of eight would need to make less than $105,000 to qualify for the stipend under the proposed ceiling, compared with about $80,000 under current law. Pentagon officials said the increase would cost $245 million and decrease use of SNAP.


A recent survey by Blue Star Families, however, found that the allowance has had limited success in alleviating hunger because many who could benefit are unaware of the program. The Basic Needs Allowance is not the only benefit that food insecure military families do not receive.


“Too many military personnel and their families miss out on accessing the federal nutrition programs and all the benefits these programs offer to the nutrition, health, and well-being of participants,” FRAC’s Bhatti said. “While SNAP is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger, far too many of our nation’s defenders are going hungry due to various reasons, including how SNAP treats the basic housing allowance as unearned income, which pushes too many military families over the SNAP eligibility threshold.” The Basic Housing Allowance is provided to those assigned to permanent duty in the United States but don’t live in government housing.


The Military Family Nutrition Access Act of 2023, introduced in the Senate, would exclude the housing allowance from income for SNAP eligibility. While this would help, other factors also prevent eligible military families from applying for or getting help from government programs.


“Some military families do not participate in federal nutrition programs due to a variety of reasons, including the stigma of not wanting to ask for help, inaccurate information about the programs or challenges applying for SNAP, accessing WIC clinics, or locating summer meal sites,” Bhatti said. “It’s critical that we build the political will to address this glaring gap in program participation and redouble our efforts to ensure that no one who has sacrificed for our country has to sacrifice their nutrition, health, and well-being.”


To help spouses who transfer, DOD launched the Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot in 2023. The 12-week paid fellowship program helps military spouses find employment fellowships with participating companies, and many participants are offered full-time employment after finishing the fellowship, according to MFAN.


Congress is also looking at ways to help military spouses in professions that require licenses, such as nurses, attorneys, and hair stylists, to be able to transfer licenses more easily from state to state by lifting barriers for military families, according to Razsadin.


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