With one in five military families experiencing food insecurity in 2021 -- up from one in eight two years ago -- two major reports released this week tried to explain what's causing the rise in families facing the risk of not having enough to eat.
The Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies and advocacy group Military Family Advisory Network each released studies that found structural parts of military life, such as high rates of spouse unemployment, and moving and child care shortages are driving the growing rate of food insecurity among active-duty military families.
"Unfortunately, we know that families are struggling to provide healthy food. Now we've made it our focus to learn why so that we and our colleagues in this space may work toward lasting solutions," said Shannon Razsadin, MFAN executive director, during the rollout of MFAN's surveys, "Causal Factors of Military and Veteran Family Food Insecurity."
According to the CSIS report, the uncertainty surrounding feeding a military family is a national security concern.
"It multiplies stress on active-duty personnel, diminishes well-being among service members and their children -- who are more likely to serve in the military as adults -- and may hinder recruitment for the armed services," according to the CSIS report.
The MFAN report was based on surveys filled out last year by 312 service members and their families in Virginia and Texas. Those respondents reported that living on a single income, frequent moves, unexpected expenses, natural disasters and inflation contribute to food insecurity, defined as not having reliable access to adequate amounts of nutritious, healthy food.
A survey by the military support group Blue Star Families released earlier this year found that the spouse unemployment rate in military families is at 20% and more than 63% are underemployed. Military spouses often struggle to find jobs because they face hiring discrimination as a result of frequent relocations or they have gaps in employment related to their moves.
Difficulty finding child care further drives many military spouses away from full-time employment.
Moving itself also was listed as a causal factor, with those surveyed saying that the Defense Department is slow to reimburse for out-of-pocket expenses or does not fully reimburse for all costs related to relocation.
Other causes included expenses associated with expanding military families and family planning, unexpected bills like emergency trips to a veterinarian or auto repair, and expenses related to natural disasters such as the 2021 ice storm in Texas or living in high-priced areas.
"A lot of military families feel the same way, that we just don't make enough money to support our needs nowadays," wrote one respondent. "I think that would help us tremendously if the pay were increased or even the subsidy, when you talk about Basic Allowance for Subsistence, even if that was increased, or instead of it being standard by rank, it should be standard by family size."
The reports included numerous recommendations to curtail food insecurity among service members and their families. The MFAN report suggested excluding the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, from the required calculations to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or commonly referred to as food stamps) and count as little BAH as possible to qualify for the new Basic Needs Allowance that was included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
A new report, ordered by Congress in that same law, may shed more light on the scope of the issue. A Defense Department review of food insecurity in the U.S. military is due by Oct. 1.
The Basic Needs Allowance is still in its infancy, with the Pentagon currently developing the qualifications and policies that regulate the new benefit. The DoD's fiscal 2023 budget request includes funding to implement the allowance starting next year.
MFAN also suggested that the DoD expedite reimbursement and completely cover costs tied to military moves.
CSIS recommended improving employment opportunities for military spouses through career programs and expanding the availability of affordable child care.
"You have a group of folks [military spouses] that have committed to the military life of service but aren't in uniform. The nation is really missing out on this great treasure trove of people," said Col. Christopher Reid, a fellow in CSIS's International Security Program.
Reid was speaking in his capacity as an analyst for CSIS -- a temporary one-year fellowship designed for senior personnel to conduct research and broaden their understanding of topics of interest to the U.S. military -- and not for the Air Force.
The data remains mixed on the extent of the food insecurity problem among military families. In the past, Defense Department officials cited data showing low usage of SNAP as an indication that there wasn't a problem of need in the U.S. military.
In 2000, the Defense Department's Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation found that service members relied on SNAP at significantly lower rates than civilians: Between .08% and .42% of troops use SNAP, also known as food stamps, while civilian usage is 9.6%.
Critics noted, however, that the report pulled data from only two months in 2019 and did not include numbers from 40% of states, including several with large military populations such as California, Hawaii and Virginia. There are also service members who experience food insecurity but, because of the qualifications for the program, aren't eligible for SNAP.
Last year, Patty Barron, the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said that military food insecurity was a top priority for the Biden administration. Barron said the DoD was collecting new data on the extent of the problem.
A survey released in 2021 found that nearly 33% of more than 5,600 respondents at an unidentified Army installation were considered marginally food insecure, meaning they faced food hardship or had difficulties ensuring that their food budget stretched through the end of the month.
Razsadin, the MFAN executive director, said military families face difficulties admitting they need help. But the group's recent report, she said, shows there are factors beyond their control that affect their ability to feed their families.
"It's difficult to talk about food insecurity," Razsadin said in a video accompanying the release of the reports. "People were not comfortable talking about it publicly because there is that feeling of stigma and shame. ... We are here to understand the causal factors and also to shift the culture and promote help-seeking behavior."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.