Over the past few years, the growing conversation about military families facing food insecurity has caught more and more media attention. But, there still seems to be stigma, confusion, and general shock when the topic is brought up. For clarity, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In short, this means that an individual or family lacks adequate resources or access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle.
Food insecurity is a significant concern for the health and well-being of military families. One study in the Journal of Nutrition of servicemembers in the US Army found a significant correlation between food insecurity and anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Feeding America estimates that the general population of the United States has a post-pandemic food insecurity rate of 1 in 8. In comparison, in 2021, the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) found that the number of military families suffering from food insecurity was a staggering 1 in 5. With military families struggling to reliably and adequately put food on the table at a rate nearly double the national average, this issue is worth looking into. To determine reliable solutions, it is important to understand the unique burdens for military families.
WHAT CAUSES FOOD INSECURITY FOR MILITARY FAMILIES?
One of the main contributing factors is low military pay. In general, a military member’s base pay is often less than the salaries of their civilian counterparts. However, military members do receive additional benefits that make a single factor comparison complicated. For one, military members receive a tax-exempt allowance for food called a Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). In 2022, an officer in the military receives $280.29 while an enlisted member receives $406.98 to purchase food. BAS is meant to offset the cost of the military member’s meals when dining at their duty station and is not designed to cover the cost of meals for family members. According to the USDA, the average cost for a family of four following the Thrifty Food Plan, a “nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet,” was $887.80 per month while the cost of feeding one male aged 20-50 is only estimated to be $274.60. So, when military members are receiving BAS it is adequate to feed themselves, not their family members.
Military members also receive a tax-exempt Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), which is designed to cover 95% of housing costs. According to the calculation tables, the majority of military members are being paid to cover 95% of the housing cost for a median apartment or townhome. Single family dwelling rates do not start until the ranks of E9 or O4, which is over ten years into a military member’s career. This means that many military families are being paid less than their civilian counterparts in base pay and expected to cover additional housing costs and family meals out of pocket with this lower than comparable pay.
For military members who joined after Dec 31, 2017, the new Blended Retirement System offers some retirement preparation for military members, regardless of length of service. However, like most employer retirement plans, it requires contributions for maximum benefit. With military pay lower than civilian counterparts, food allowance that doesn’t support family members, and a housing allowance that doesn’t cover the full cost of family housing, it may be difficult for some families to afford to fund their own retirement, therefore creating further economic instability in the future.
It is important to note that military families also receive a no-cost entitlement called Tricare, which functions similar to health insurance, for little to no cost out-of-pocket. This is a significant financial benefit which cannot be understated.
Due to frequent relocation, work schedules, and lack of access to affordable childcare, among other factors, military spouses have endured an unemployment rate near 25% for the past decade. According to the 2021 Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Employment Summit, post pandemic numbers show that 38% of military spouses are now unemployed. For reference, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for February 2022 was 3.8%. That means that military spouses are suffering unemployment at ten times the national average. Another comparison to consider is that while 66% of households with children report dual income; the majority of military households are single income. An income that now requires a self-paid retirement system, does not cover the full cost of housing, does not cover family members’ food, and pays less than civilian counterparts.
There are plenty of instances in military families where other finance related circumstances lead to economic instability, and potentially food insecurity. Blue Star Families just released the results of their 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, in which military families stated that “spouse un- and underemployment, student loans, and out-of-pocket relocation costs” were stressors for military families. To quote their report, of the families who reported out of pocket housing costs, “more than three-quarters (76%) pay $200 or more out-of-pocket each month. Two-thirds (66%) of active-duty family respondents report having unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses related to their last PCS move, and among those with unreimbursed moving costs, more than half (55%) report those expenses to be over $1,000.”
In addition to military-related expenses and hardships, regular life events like emergency expenses or medical bills may help contribute to financial stress. While personal financial decisions can absolutely be a contributor to military family financial burden, as it can with any family, it is very clear that military families face significant stressors as additional burdens from their military career and lifestyle. (Personal finance counseling is available, free of charge, for military members and their families on military installations and through Military One Source).
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO HELP?
When it comes to military families who are struggling to put food on the table, there is a prevalent stigma that it must be a result of poor financial decisions, despite the increasing research and media coverage discussing the complexity of this issue. In Fall 2021, the top enlisted official for the US Army, Sgt. Maj Michael Grinston, was quoted saying, “Did you get a really nice car, really nice boat, a motorcycle, and can’t feed [the] family?” However, food insecurity is receiving a Pentagon level review after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “Men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about–basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them. This is a readiness issue,” in a November 2021 memo. This inconsistent approach to support for military families causes them not to ask their leadership for support, but instead to seek help from neighbors, family members, food pantries, religious organizations, or even relying on credit cards to feed their families.
For the majority of families in the US faced with low income, they are able to access nutrition support services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called “food stamps,” or Women Infants and Children (WIC). Both of these nutrition programs are funded through the USDA and can have unintentional barriers for military families. SNAP counts the military housing allowance as income, despite the IRS determining it as non-taxable income, and the Department of Defense using it to cover 95% of the cost of an apartment or townhome. Some states also count BAH as income for their WIC programs. This means that military families may qualify for, and very much need, nutrition support, but are deemed ineligible. In addition, it is well known that food pantries exist on or near every military installation in the country.
Many national and local level organizations currently offer food and meal giveaways near military installations. While these initiatives are helping to meet the immediate need of hunger, they are not helping to solve the root cause of food insecurity in the military community, nor are they helping equip military families with the education and resources needed for decision-making when it comes to meals on a tight budget. Over the last two school years since the pandemic started, the National School Lunch Program has provided free lunches to every public-school student, regardless of income status or paperwork completed by parents. This is a huge relief because as many as 65% of on-base children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In 2021, Congress passed the Basic Needs Allowance (BNA) to help supplement the income for the lowest paid military members. However, like USDA based programs, BNA includes housing allowance as income available for food, thus excluding the majority of families who may benefit from this program.
HOW CAN YOU STAND IN THE GAP FOR FOOD INSECURE MILITARY FAMILIES?
In addition to food giveaways, pay increases, and military family focused programs, one of the most influential ways to impact military families’ food budgets is to offer education on how to maximize both personal finance resources as well as grocery-related support. InDependent has proudly taken the first step in supporting military families above and beyond food giveaways with the new Fuel the Homefront workshop series geared towards teaching families how to eat healthfully on a budget. This workshop series is designed to empower military families to not only be in the know for what support services are available on military installations/within military affiliated organizations, but Fuel the Homefront is also geared toward teaching the basics of budget-minded groceries for the whole family. Fuel the Homefront is designed to help military families find the services they need while also teaching them to maximize those benefits to best feed themselves.
With Senate bill 3781, proposed by Tammy Duckworth and a group of Senators on March 8, 2022, the basic housing allowance for the military would be excluded from eligibility for nutrition support services like SNAP and WIC.
Food insecurity in military families is a complex issue stemming from a variety of factors and circumstances that are creating a problem that is occurring at nearly twice the national average. To fully present effective solutions, the military community and legislators must fully grasp the complexity of the issue, and then identify areas for improvement, some of which have been outlined in this article, including changes to support services eligibility like WIC. In the meantime, providing education and resource connection to the most vulnerable families facing economic insecurity will continue to be the main focus of InDependent and Fuel the Homefront.