During a “Cooking Live With Julie” segment for the Greater Jacksonville Area USO Healthy Military Families Initiative, Julie Davis (left) welcomes a guest, Chef Amadeus, winner of a Food Networks Extreme Chef competition.

During a “Cooking Live With Julie” segment for the Greater Jacksonville Area USO Healthy Military Families Initiative, Julie Davis (left) welcomes a guest, Chef Amadeus, winner of a Food Networks Extreme Chef competition. (Screen shot by Beth Reese Cravey)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Melissa Recker and Monica Snelling, members of the Naval Station Mayport community, have become experts in stretching military family budgets.

Recker is a single mother of four — including one child with a wide range of medical conditions — who lost her active-duty husband in 2020 to cardiac arrest. Snelling is raising five children, with her husband "in and out" on deployments on the USS Thomas Hudner.

"We live paycheck to paycheck," Recker said.

But she and Snelling have received a hand-up from the Greater Jacksonville Area USO's Healthy Military Family Initiative that provides access to a food pantry as well as classes in healthy living and cooking, among other things. The USO also hosts "no dough" dinners to help stretch paychecks and provides holiday food baskets.

That assistance, the two women said, has been a godsend.

"This program has helped balance out our grocery budget, and with that we have been able to pay down some of our debt faster than if we didn't get the help," Snelling said.

Recker said, "It has made a positive difference in my family’s life, reduced stress and worry."

'Home away from home'

Established in 1979, the area USO's centers at Mayport, Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Jacksonville International Airport provide a variety of programs to improve the quality of life for about 250,000 active-duty military and their families, as well as offer a "home away from home" environment.

The Health Military Families Initiative at Mayport launched in 2019 focusing on health, wellness and nutrition education. Leading partners are Feeding Northeast Florida, a regional food bank; the Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, or BEAM, which helps low-income residents in Jacksonville's beaches communities; and Humana Military, one of the main contractors for managed health care for service members, families and retirees.

"No one should experience hunger, but it’s particularly troubling that so many of our neighbors currently serving our country struggle to feed their families," said Susan King, president and CEO of Feeding Northeast Florida, which provides about 70 percent of the initiative's food.

Local businesses that support the effort include Winn-Dixie, Publix and Crowley Cares, the charitable and volunteerism arm of Crowley Maritime Corp. Crowley recently donated $25,000 for groceries and other wellness initiatives through the USO's alliance with First Coast American Heart Association.

Crowley employees are committed "to serving those in need and the importance of wellness for people whose sacrifices keep us safe," said Chairman and CEO Tom Crowley.

The intent of the Health Military Families Initiative was to give "young military families with the critical resources and education they need to sustain healthy eating habits," according to the area USO.

Families qualify based on income and family size, said Executive Director Mike O’Brien. They receive food every other week but are also required to participate in the education component.

He cited the Italian proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime."

"It's not just free food," O'Brien said. "We're teaching them how to cook. A 27-year-old does not know what to do with an eggplant."

Snelling said the cooking classes had made a difference in her family's life.

"I believe learning how to cook and eat healthy is just as important as getting the food itself," she said. "We have been able to learn how to cook in ways we didn't before and I love trying new ways to cook, helps my picky eaters try new things.

Recker said having fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooking classes, has helped her family be able to have nutritional meals.

"What a blessing this is to help not only me put healthy meals on my table but … helping so many other families do the same," she said.

Pandemic adds to the struggles

The financial struggles that were already facing many young military families worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many military spouses lost their jobs, particularly those who worked in the restaurant and retail sectors, O'Brien said.

Members of the military tend to marry and have children earlier, O'Brien said. Most of them are in the E-3 to E-5 military pay grade, with monthly entry-level pay from $2,042 to $2,467, which translates to $24,504 to $29,699 a year.

"The impact COVID has had on food insecurity within the military, it has nearly doubled the number from 15 percent to 29 percent," he said. "Most of this increase is the result of military spouses losing their jobs due to the pandemic."

As a result, "a family of four, they're not making it," O'Brien said. "They're struggling with food insecurity. Not starvation, but they're not eating quality food, fresh food."

As the pandemic subsides and more people return to work, he hopes the military food insecurity rate will drop back to the 15 percent range. But there are still plenty of military families in that range who need help, he said.

Although they likely qualify to receive food stamps or to use community food pantries, "young military families are reluctant to seek social services," according to Humana Military. "The USO, Feeding Northeast Florida and BEAM fill that gap."

“Providing support to the military or 'serving the deserving' is near and dear to my heart as a former military spouse and military family member,' said Lavender Morrison, Humana’s Jacksonville Military Health and Resilience leader. "Humana Military takes great pride in working collectively with the Jacksonville community to create collaborative projects addressing the social determinants of health within the military."

The Healthy Military Families Initiative, she said, "is a wonderful example of how collaboration can maximize the resources in the community to make the greatest impact."

The initiative currently serves about 100 Mayport families.

"There are far more that qualify, but logistically we are maximum capacity" in the food pantry, O'Brien said.

More to come

A capital campaign is underway to raise money for a new 2,400-square-foot space that will cost about $650,000. About a third of that cost has been collected, O'Brien said.

Also, the USO is seeking matching funding for a refrigerated box truck that will help expand the initiative beyond Mayport to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Southeast Georgia and Patrick Space Force Base in Brevard County, O'Brien said. "We want to take the program on the road," he said.

Feeding America, the national organization that includes local affiliate Feeding Northeast Florida, has provided a $35,000 grant, but the truck will cost about $70,000.

"We have worked with the Greater Jacksonville Area’s USO for more than four years," said Feeding Northeast Florida's King. "Recently it became clear they needed to expand their facility to address the growing need of our military families."

Grants and strategic partnerships with other organizations led to funding for the refrigerated truck, as well as freezers and coolers, pantry equipment and "additional food resources to help expand," she said.

Meanwhile, BEAM has also provided food to the USO and expects to increase that support to an expanded pantry, said Executive Director Lori Richards.

"Nutrition education is an important aspect of all of BEAM’s food assistance programs, so we completely aligned with the goals of the USO program," she said. "Beam’s registered dietitian is able to … encourage families, and especially children, to recognize that the choices they make in what they eat have long-lasting health implications."

Virtual cooking classes for children recently evolved into BEAM hosting a group of military children to their garden, she said.

Recker and Snelling said all the components of the initiative — the food distribution, the classes and the BEAM garden visit — mean more to them than any of the organizations or the volunteers know.

"I’m so grateful and thankful for the generosity of everything the USO does to help the military community and often overwhelmed by the support they have given to me and my children," Recker said. "They have huge hearts."

Snelling said she will miss the Jacksonville USO when her family transfers elsewhere.

"We are incredibly blessed by the USO and all their programs," she said. "My husband has been in and out a majority of the time we have been here and it has been amazing to have a little home away from home with the USO and their programs and how much they continued to help families even during COVID. I can't say enough good things about them."

(c)2021 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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