Why food insecurity is a huge problem among active-duty military and veterans

Federal legislation introduced this month to automatically enroll children of eligible service members into school meals programs reflects the scope of food insecurity among military families — a population that often gets overlooked in coverage of hunger and economic hardship.

The Military Dependents School Meal Eligibility Act, unveiled by Reps. Susan Davis and Mike Levin, California Democrats, would authorize the Department of Defense to work with state agencies to certify children of active duty service members in school meal programs.

Even before the pandemic, many military families and veterans struggled financially. And while advocates have welcomed the bill as a step in the right direction, they say their demands for structural changes to policies that exclude service members from government benefits have gone unanswered.

Existing data on food insecurity among military families and veterans is spotty, in part because the DoD does not collect data on the number of service members seeking food assistance. The Department Veterans Affairs only introduced food security screenings in 2017 — though it asks just one question, compared to the 18-item survey used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Still, studies indicate that military families have long struggled to put food on the table, well before the pandemic. A 2014 study by Feeding America indicated that 25 percent of active-duty and reserve personnel rely on food pantries; a 2019 Military Family Advisory study found that 15.3 percent struggle to feed their families. Around a third of children at DoD schools are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans faced food insecurity at double the rate of the general population. A 2018 study in Women’s Health Issues found that 27.6 percent of female veterans were “food insufficient”; another from 2015 by the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans found that, among veterans who were homeless or at-risk for homelessness, 50 percent experienced food insecurity. Around 1.3 million veterans use SNAP benefits, according to Census Bureau data.

Some 23,000 military families use SNAP benefits, though many who are eligible do not apply, and others are denied benefits due to the way their income is counted. That’s why Josh Protas, vice president for public policy at MAZON, a Jewish anti-hunger group, says structural changes are needed to curb food insecurity among military families.

For instance, enlisted service members who live off-base or in privatized (on-base) housing — a situation that has become increasingly common, especially for married service members — receive a housing allowance that the SNAP program considers income. (For an enlisted service member who lives on base, housing is treated as an “in-kind benefit,” and accordingly would not be treated as income in applications for federal assistance.)

“You could have two people with the exact same family composition, same base pay, but because of where they live only the one who lives on base can get SNAP,” Protas said. “It’s helpful for raising awareness, and certainly will help military families with children. But it’s just one piece, and there are more significant things that have to happen.”

Advocacy groups have for years pushed for changes that would exclude the housing allowance from SNAP eligibility requirements, as is the case for other federal benefits programs.

Military salaries for low-ranking service members, others argue, are too low to make ends meet —  enlisted personnel make just $1,602 a month during their first two years of service. “To put your life on the line, that’s not a lot of money,” said Rich Synek, a Navy veteran and the founder of Feed Our Vets, a nonprofit that runs a network of community food pantries and gives gift cards to veterans to help them purchase food.

Financial challenges often stem from high unemployment among service members’ spouses, in part due to the absence of affordable childcare. Prior to the pandemic, 24 percent of military spouses were unemployed — nearly twice as high as the national rate in April, at the height of the pandemic, and six times as high as it was in March. According to a June report from the Blue Star Families COVID-19 Military Support Initiative (CMSI), 17 percent of spouses who were employed before the pandemic reported they had lost their job or were unable to work. Along with other survey data on economic hardship, CMSI estimates that unemployment among military spouses could spike to 30 to 34 percent by the end of the pandemic.

Insufficient monitoring, advocates say, allows the military to downplay economic hardship. “The real challenge is that the Department of Defense pushes back hard on this, they don’t like to acknowledge that there’s a problem,” Protas said. “For those who are struggling, they say it’s a financial management issue. To that I would say: Why are there food pantries on or near every single military base in this country?”

Military families, he added, should not have to rely on the overburdened charitable sector to put food on the table, but because so many are deemed ineligible for SNAP, that’s often where they turn.

Service members also may hesitate to apply for benefits or tell supervisors about their financial situation, out of concern for their careers. Financial hardship, for example, is the primary reason individuals are denied security clearance. “You wouldn’t want to jeopardize your role, and there’s a lot of stigma around career status,” Protas said.

Hunger and economic hardship among military families often persist as they transition into civilian life. “They might have the attitude that the system doesn’t have their best interests at heart,” Protas said, making them hesitant to apply for benefits. “Veterans who may have had a tough time dealing with the Veterans Affairs system might have distrust of federal programs. A veteran who’s applied for disability and been turned away, or who’s waited an exceptionally long time for a healthcare evaluation, might be jaded.” They are also often unaware that they can apply for SNAP benefits or programs like WIC — a gap advocacy groups are working to close with outreach.

Veterans also experience post-traumatic stress disorder and have disabilities at higher rates than the general population, creating obstacles to finding stable employment and income.

“A lot of people end up with temporary work,” said Synek, of Feed Our Vets, noting the “environmental factors that just don’t apply to the general population.”

In the past few months, the lines at Feed Our Vets pantries have grown. “We see a lot of people seeking food assistance who, before, didn’t have to,” he said.

But stigma dissuades many in-need veterans from applying for government assistance or lining up at food pantries. “It’s a pride thing. It’s a mentality that needs to change.”