The Congressional Military Family Caucus hosted their 2021 Virtual Summit: Taking the Pulse of Military Families During COVID-19 on October 14, 2021. The event featured subject matter experts, family members, military-connected nonprofits, and legislative leaders to discuss the challenges as well as opportunities for military communities as the country emerges out of the pandemic.
Shannon Razsadin, MFAN President & Executive Director, joined U.S. Representative Sanford Bishop and others on the military food insecurity panel to share research and lived experiences of military families.
The following is a viewpoint presented by Ms. Razsadin.
Who is MFAN?
Thank you so much for having me here today to share a bit about food insecurity among military families, what we are seeing through the data, and how we are responding.
Before I dive into that, a little about MFAN. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has been around for a little over eight years.
MFAN takes a unique approach to understanding and addressing the challenges that families experience. We convene an advisory board of military spouses who have diverse backgrounds and experiences, and each brings a substantial network to the organization. Because of our advisory board and the fact that most MFAN staff are military-connected, we have a constant ear to the ground affording us insight into new and emerging challenges that military families are experiencing, and some that haven’t necessarily made it to the spotlight yet. Based on what we hear from our advisory board, we develop scientific surveys to determine the scope and depth of what we are hearing.
The combination of personal stories and data allow MFAN to bring meaningful attention to the challenges our families face.
I should also note that we are not an advocacy organization. Instead, we share widely what we hear from families and learn through the research with leaders and influencers including advocacy organizations like MAZON, NMFA, MOAA, and others.
As an organization, we believe in collaboration and always investing our time and resources to address data-informed needs, and that is how we came to address food insecurity.
Military Hunger is a Deep-Rooted Issue
MFAN first began hearing about this issue from an advisory board member, Taylor Miller, who was working at a foodbank in Norfolk, Virginia. At each meeting, she would bring up the frequency in which the foodbank would serve military families, but also the challenges in understanding the severity of the issue because in many cases, military status was not tracked.
In 2017, MFAN fielded our Military Family Support Programming Survey and asked basic questions regarding whether families had a hard time getting enough healthy food for their household. We were shocked by the number of respondents having difficulty. We saw that this was an issue affecting respondents nationally, and we also learned that families were not seeking assistance as often as we would like them to.
Later that year, following the MFAN Solutions Summit, we formed the Military Family Food Insecurity Coalition (MFFIC) to close the gap between the organizations whose mission is to combat hunger and those whose mission is to support military food insecurity – including organizations like MAZON who has been advocating on this topic and veteran food insecurity for years.
Quarterly, we bring together organizations like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), National WIC Association, United Way Worldwide, Feeding America, National Military Family Association (NMFA), Unite Us, and more to discuss what we are seeing, share data and lessons learned, and discuss collaborative solutions.
Fast forward to 2019, and MFAN again fielded the Military Family Support Programming Survey. This time, our doctoral researchers collaborated with the USDA to understand the best way to measure food insecurity, not only if it existed, but also the severity. We used the USDA Six-Item Short Form Food Security Survey Module and found that 1 in 8 of our respondents nationally was food insecure.
A unique element of our research is that we are able to get pretty granular. We found that certain locations were experiencing food insecurity at a higher frequency. Those included Washington State, where 1 in 5 was food insecure; and Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, where 1 in 6 were food insecure. We discovered that junior enlisted families and families with children were more likely to experience food insecurity and hunger, and we also learned what some were and weren’t doing when they were worried about getting enough food for their families.
I would like to read a few quotes for you:
“I wouldn’t eat or would drastically cut back. I would seek out support for my kids, because there is less stigma with helping children,” said a Navy spouse.
“I won’t eat if it means my kids can eat. My husband is the soldier, and he needs the food more than myself as well,” said an Army spouse.
The Birth of the 1 Million Meals Challenge
Sadly, we again found that many families were choosing to go without food rather than seeking out support. That is where the 1 Million Meals Challenge came in.
In April, MFAN launched an ambitious goal to provide the equivalent of one million meals for military families this year. To make this happen, we’ve teamed up with incredible local food bank partners. We have also received amazing support from companies like Tyson Foods, Nestle, and the major suppliers of the Commissary, as well as Bob Woodruff Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project.
This program is about more than getting food into families’ hands. It is about reducing stigma, connecting families to resources like WIC and free and reduced meals at schools, and understanding the underlying factors that lead to food insecurity.
MFAN has hosted eight food distribution events this year in the locations where the greatest need exists: Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Norfolk, and Joint Base San Antonio. At each event, between 500 and 700 families are served.
This weekend our team will be at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. These events are special, they are humbling, and quite encouraging. When I was at the Norfolk, Virginia event on 9/11, it was apparent that when families pulled in, they were nervous. But as they drove through and saw our DJ, were greeted and thanked by our incredible (dancing) volunteers, and were provided around 75 lbs. of nutritious food, we saw smiles, relief, and gratitude.
Here are a few examples of what we heard from families:
“What a wonderful event and group of people! It’s been such a long time since we’ve felt valued as a military family. Today made us feel cared for and brought tears to my eyes,” said an Army spouse.
“Quick, easy, and loving this event because it helps families out a lot, especially the ones with kids. I appreciate the food that was given because this week we had less money for food due to paying bills. Thank you,” said a Navy spouse.
As an organization, MFAN is in this for the long haul. Our team is currently conducting hundreds of interviews in Texas and Norfolk to understand the underlying factors that lead to food insecurity among military families. We will develop journey maps that ultimately allow us to pinpoint the things that are happening that bring families to the point of being food insecure.
I know that I can speak for everyone on this panel when I say that food insecurity among military families should be a national outrage.
As MFAN and our colleagues bring more attention to the issues, we are uplifted by the focus the topic is getting. We are encouraged by the legislative action put forward by Representative Bishop, Senator Duckworth, and others in Congress. We are heartened that food insecurity is a top focus of Joining Forces. And we are optimistic that the Department of Defense will continue to evaluate and support commanders and senior enlisted in getting support to families on the local level. There is a long way to go.
To families out there who may be experiencing food insecurity, I encourage you to visit combatmilitaryhunger.org.
Watch the Food Insecurity Panel
2021 Military Family Support Programming Survey
And, to all military families out there, I humbly ask that you share your experiences with us. I know that many surveys are thrown your way, but I can tell you that this survey MFAN fields is unique, we take the time to hear from you in your own words. It is 20 minutes well spent and we need to hear as many diverse perspectives as possible.
Active duty service members, veterans, and their families may take the survey at milfanet.org/2021mfansurvey.