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Georgia food bank expands to serve military

AUGUSTA, Ga. (MCT) -- Golden Harvest Food Bank opened a new Augusta warehouse Thursday to serve the growing number of area residents, households and military families who depend on pantries, kitchens and shelters for groceries and meals each year.

In the Augusta area, Golden Harvest estimated that it serves 199,500 people, 49,275 children and 34,710 senior citizens annually in 30 counties, according to a 2014 study the nonprofit participated in that was sponsored by Feeding America, the nation's largest food bank network.

The most shocking finding, officials said, was that 3 percent of the 68,800 households the local food bank helps each year include at least one military service member who is either active-duty, in the National Guard or Reserve.

"That's pretty staggering," said Travis McNeal, executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank, adding 18 percent of the nonprofit's households contain at least one veteran. "That means we have a lot more work to do."

McNeal and Golden Harvest hope a newly renovated warehouse and a $144,000 donation from Walmart will help it assist struggling military families.

"It's not decreasing," Dannah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association, said of the 1.4 million people who use pantries and kitchens statewide. "The truth is the recession has really staggered a lot of families and (some) just needed a little help making ends meet through Georgia's food bank network, which distributed 130 million pounds of food last year."

Between defense downsizing and active-duty pay raises being lower than the Consumer Price Index, Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said the number of military households on financial edge is "higher than it should be."

In a news release, she urged the Pentagon to stop limiting pay raises, raising commissary prices, increasing out of pocket health care costs, and cutting critical family and service member programs, such as financial education and spouse employment support.

"They don't want to seek help from their command because, for one thing, they're embarrassed," Raezer said of service members.

Raezer says there are a lot of resources available to military families, but that many prefer outside help to avoid drawing attention to themselves during times of widespread cuts.

The Pentagon disagreed with the methodology Feeding America used to calculate the estimated percentage of military households served by its food assistance programs.

Defense officials said that surveying households instead of individuals creates an inaccurate picture for comparing sample data to military statistics.

"Military compensation, which includes pay and benefits, compares favorably with the private sector," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in an e-mail.

In his statement, Christensen cited a 2012 study that estimated officers and service members, respectively on average, receive more pay than 80 to 90 percent of civilians with similar education and experience.

Despite the data, Fort Gordon statistics show in 2013 that the post's Army Emergency Relief program provided $772,240 to 746 people in need of money for food, vehicle repairs, insurance, rent, utilities, and emergency or medical travel.

Though Army Emergency Relief offers financial assistance to service members in crisis, Fort Gordon spokesman J.C. Mathews said the post recognizes that some families may prefer the anonymity that comes with seeking help outside the military community. He praised area programs, such as Golden Harvest, for their help.

(c) 2014 The Augusta Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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