Family Support Center volunteer Joyce Ward straightens food items on the shelves at the Misawa Air Base, Japan, food pantry. About 30 to 35 troops avail themselves of offerings in the pantry each month.

Family Support Center volunteer Joyce Ward straightens food items on the shelves at the Misawa Air Base, Japan, food pantry. About 30 to 35 troops avail themselves of offerings in the pantry each month. (Wayne Specht / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Earlier this month, Misawa’s American Forces Network radio dedicated six hours of programming to replenishing shelves at Misawa’s food pantry.

“It was very successful,” said Joyce Ward, a Family Support Center volunteer who works at the Airman’s Attic where the food pantry is housed. “We received 2,730 items.”

Despite a series of military pay hikes over the past decade, officials at several bases say a demonstrated need remains for a free food program.

“Even with all the support systems we have, folks still need a little bit of help to make ends meet,” said Maj. Barbara Severson-Olson, Misawa’s Family Support Center director. “People still have financial emergencies, especially if a family of six has to fly to the States for, say, a funeral.”

Severson-Olson said Misawa’s food pantry is set up with a degree of confidentiality.

“Some people find it hard to come in asking for food because there’s a lot of pride involved, and that’s understandable,” she said.

Those who do come in are not tracked by name or rank, so exact usage figures are unavailable.

Misawa’s food pantry is in Building 665, the Airmen’s Attic, also home to the “loan closet” for such things as appliances, baby safety seats and other household necessities.

“Between 30 and 35 people use the pantry each month; we never turn people away,” she added.

Although food and baby needs are the majority of the pantry’s inventory, occasional cash donations from officers’ and enlisted spouses’ organizations enable buying costlier items, such as baby diapers and formula.

No limit is placed on the number of items people can take from the pantry, said Tawnya Herzog, a family services coordinator.

“We’ve never seen anyone abuse the privilege,” she said. “It’s all on the honor system. Military people trust each other.”

At Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, officials say a food pantry definitely is needed, even with benefits such as free housing and the overseas cost-of-living allowance.

“A lot of times it’s a stop-gap measure,” said Master Sgt. Kenny Adams, first sergeant for 374th Mission Support Squadron. Often, he said, families are in need when making a permanent change in station overseas: They may arrive at Yokota with a car bill or mortgage in tow but with the next payday several weeks away.

Yokota has two food pantries: Operation Warm Heart, run by area first sergeants, and one in the Airman’s Attic, where donated items from clothes to furniture are free.

Barbara Lucy, the family services coordinator in charge of Yokota’s Airman’s Attic, said some families dip into the food pantry only during tight financial times. For instance, she said, a child’s birth, buying a vehicle or paying Japanese Compulsory Insurance can leave a family cash-poor.

“Any financial burden outside of the normal budget” may pose a problem for a month or pay period, Lucy said.

Food pantry customers at Yokota must be military members — E-5 or below — with children. A family may get one bag of groceries per visit and one bag of diapers and baby wipes per month, Lucy said.

No formal financial-screening process exists, but a servicemember would be referred to Lucy after the third visit in one month to determine if he needs financial counseling or other services.

In the two months since Airman’s Attic opened a food pantry, it’s had about 50 customers, Lucy said.

“There is quite a need,” she said.

First sergeants don’t track customers, Adams said, because of the stigma associated with hand-outs.

“That’s not the intent of the program,” he said. It works “more or less on the honor system.”

Some numbers are available from last year’s holiday season: Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, about 480 families used cash vouchers subsidized by the food pantry for a commissary ham or turkey, Adams said. The first sergeants also gave families a food basket of traditional holiday trimmings.

Many of the nonperishable goods in Operation Warm Heart come from donations received at two major food drives held annually, the organization said.

The pantry, in Yokota’s Airman Leadership School, fills about two dorm-size rooms, Adams said. Items with a long shelf life sometimes are donated to charities such as the homeless ministry in Tokyo, which feeds about 3,000 people a week, Adams said.

Anyone is eligible to use the pantry, he said. “If there’s somebody in need, we make it available to them.”

Yokosuka Naval Base doesn’t have a full-time food pantry for military families, said base spokesman Mike Chase, but food drives are held there once or twice a year. Donated foodstuffs are delivered to local food banks or shelters in the local Japanese community.

Ward, of Misawa, said large-scale food drives are held twice a year but the pantry also receives periodic donations from food drives and contests sponsored at the base’s three Department of Defense Dependents Schools facilities.

“Sollars Elementary School students brought us 600 jars of baby food after they had a contest between classes,” she said. “The commissary was running out of baby food.”

A food offering also is taken occasionally at the base chapel; a food donation box is near an exit door at the commissary, too.

Severson-Olson said in certain instances, the pantry’s clientele may be directed to resources on base that can help with a financial management program.

“The Air Force Aid Society, Army and Navy Relief societies are also part of the overall support system for military families here,” she said.

Herzog cited instances troops who borrowed from the pantry returning the favor.

“They come back a month later and donate a bag of groceries,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see that.”

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