The Pentagon Is Stepping Up On-Base Food Options to Help Troops Battle Food Insecurity

A mess hall worker serves Marines at Camp Hansen, Okinawa
A mess hall worker serves Marines during the III Marine Expeditionary Force Support Battalion Mess Hall reopening at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 2, 2022. (U.S Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Reine Whitaker)

In its first update on efforts to address food insecurity among active-duty troops, the Pentagon said it's taking steps to make on-base food options more usable and attractive, but officials also noted that the department is just starting to gather the data it needs to learn how to fully root out the problem of some troops not getting enough to eat or worrying where their next meal might come from.

In addition to the pay increases and new allowances that have been passed by Congress this year -- measures that are expected to help service members with families -- a senior defense department official told making food easier to get on base is "something the services are leaned into very heavily."

"They have been doing a lot of work trying to make sure that the way service members, the single service members, who live on the installations, in the barracks, have access to food," the official said in an interview Wednesday.

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For years, the issue of troops struggling to put food on the table has been a topic of study and conversation among military support organizations and advocacy groups, but the Pentagon had avoided taking major action to address the issue until recent years. Service members told in past reports that they saw leaders as part of the problem rather than a solution.

But as COVID-19 made food insecurity worse for troops, it also brought a growing amount of attention and effort -- largely from Congress -- to combat the issue.

One study, conducted at an unnamed Army base by Army Public Health Center, found that, out of a sample of nearly 5,000 soldiers, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the percentage of food-insecure troops to almost double from 16% to 31%.

A 2020 DoD survey showed that 24% of active-duty service members experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. Since then, those numbers have not decreased.

The senior defense official, who was granted anonymity as a condition for discussing the report, said a 2022 survey found that low food security increased from 14% to 21% and very low food security increased from 10% to 20%.

The USDA's definitions say "low food security" is when a family's lack of money leads to "reductions in dietary quality and variety," while "very low food security" is when that financial hardship leads to skipped meals or a drop in the amount of food being eaten.

The official stressed that this data doesn't show any impact of many of the several pay raises enacted by Congress, as well as the creation of a "Basic Needs Allowance" and an increase in housing allowances in expensive markets.

Many of these measures, like the Basic Needs Allowance and boosted housing allowance, almost exclusively benefit troops with families -- one of two broad groups that are impacted by food insecurity.

The other group is single service members who may be able to afford the food but either struggle to find it nearby or are turned off by what is available at a dining facility and instead turn to less healthy options.

"Among single enlisted service members living on base, those who are food insecure were less likely to eat in the dining facilities than food secure members," the defense official explained, before adding the top reasons given in the survey were "not liking the food or bringing food from or eating at the residence."

This is an issue that has plagued the services for years and goes beyond troops simply being unhappy with a dining hall's offerings that day.

After one Army reservist set up a food review app for military dining facilities, service members posted one-star reviews that featured pictures of moldy vents and undercooked chicken. In other cases, such as sailors aboard a ship undergoing maintenance at Virginia's Newport News Shipyard, the logistics of the location were the main issue.

Several scathing Navy reports revealed that sailors faced such long commutes to and from the shipyard that they barely had time left to sleep, much less seek out proper food. Meanwhile, sailors who were housed at the one barracks on the shipyard were basically stuck in the middle of an industrial area with few options available to them.

Last month, as part of the Navy's response, Rear Adm. Christopher Gray told reporters that his "Quality of Service" team was checking "sailors' access to healthy food options within 20 minutes of their homes and work."

Gray added that his team made improvements to existing shipyard facilities that included an increase to sailor bussing options and planned to make an existing, contractor-run canteen on the shipyard into a 24/7, unmanned market.

"We're also reviewing unaccompanied housing cooking policy," Gray said.

The report released Wednesday said that all the services are pursuing pilot or trial programs that seek to give service members easier access to food at any time.

The Navy's Exchange command is exploring the idea of mini-marts that have a section that stays open 24 hours a day. The first one is set to open at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, in January. The command is also upgrading Ships Stores aboard large Navy vessels to allow automated 24/7 access. The cruiser USS San Jacinto and the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower both have these upgrades now.

The Army says it will better communicate to dependents of junior enlisted that they can use the on-base dining facilities at a cheaper rate. The branch's plans to "address the disparity in access to food include the roll out of 26 Army food trucks, 11 operational kiosks, and 3 bistros that are programmed and budgeted."

The branch will also continue "to reevaluate these modernization efforts and evaluate food deserts to determine the best places to implement these capabilities."

However, officials also point to the need to learn more about the issues at play in order to better address food insecurity going forward. Several studies that include both service members and their families are underway.

Related: Military Hunger: New Study Shows 1 in 8 Military Families Turned to Food Banks During the Pandemic

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