WASHINGTON — The number of military families who struggle to put food on the table has been growing in the years since the Great Recession, the nation’s largest network of soup kitchens and food pantries said Tuesday.
That increase convinced the Feeding America charity to study servicemembers who use the food assistance network, leading to a landmark report released Monday that found about one in four active-duty and reserve troops or someone in their household sought out charitable meals or groceries over the past year.
The Hunger in America report and an interview with the nationwide charity indicate troops are increasingly falling into a segment of the working poor that makes too little to consistently afford food but too much to qualify for government aid such as food stamps.
“We have heard anecdotally for the last several years that our food banks have seen an increase in the military families coming for food distribution,” said Maura Daly, spokeswoman for Feeding America.
Feeding America has published studies on hunger in the U.S. every four years since 1993. The findings Monday finally put numbers to what charity workers were seeing.
About 620,000 households where at least one servicemember lives — including reserve forces — received donated meals or food over the past year through the network, which includes soup kitchens, food banks and pantries in every state, according to the findings released Monday.
“What that means is that one in four people currently serving in the military lives in a household that turns to Feeding America for food assistance,” Daly said.
Many Americans are still struggling to bounce back from the stock market and housing crash in 2008. Troops — despite the set pay and benefits — may be particularly dependent on charity food pantries for help.
The use of government-funded food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has doubled in the four years since the economic collapse. But about 27 percent of Americans who sometimes go hungry have incomes above the federal eligibility requirements, according to the charity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists the cutoff for SNAP assistance at $14,940 in gross annual income for a single-person household and $30,624 for a family of four.
In comparison, an E-1 soldier starts out with a base pay of about $18,378, according to the Army.
“A lot of military families would not qualify for SNAP,” Daly said.
The report found that military households are about 4 percent of the 15.5 million households served by the food assistance network.
The Pentagon shot back on Tuesday, defending military pay and compensation and saying that the study results are flawed.
Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said a review of military compensation two years ago found pay for enlisted troops was higher than 90 percent of civilians with the same education and experience. Officers were paid more than 83 percent of their civilian counterparts.
Meanwhile, the Feeding America study did not look at the specific relationships between the servicemembers and those who took food assistance, and did not survey troops who live overseas.
Daly said it is possible that servicemembers reported in some of the households were deployed or away on training when members of the family sought out assistance.
The charity surveyed 60,122 people who used the network over several months and asked them whether there was anyone in their household currently serving in the military. The results where then extrapolated to make estimates for a yearlong period.
“The Department of Defense disagrees with the methodology that Feeding America used to calculate the estimated percentage of military households served by its food assistance programs,” Christensen wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.