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Volunteers prepare to load a vehicle at a Military Family Advisory Network food distribution event for Fort Hood military families in Killeen, Texas, on March 19, 2022.

Volunteers prepare to load a vehicle at a Military Family Advisory Network food distribution event for Fort Hood military families in Killeen, Texas, on March 19, 2022. (Photo provided by Military Family Advisory Network)

The key factors that make up military life were found to be significant contributors to food insecurity for military families and could hinder the ability of the armed forces to recruit and retain troops if it isn’t addressed, according to two reports released this week.

Frequent moves, including to areas with a high cost of living, and high spouse unemployment are two of the factors unique to military life that were found to impact the ability of military families to purchase enough nutritious food. Other factors identified include adding a new family member, unexpected expenses, natural disasters and the rising cost of living, according to reports from the Military Family Advisory Network and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families is a national security concern: it multiplies stress on active-duty personnel, diminishes well-being among service members and their children — who are more likely to serve in the military as adults — and may hinder recruitment for the armed services,” according to the report from CSIS, a Washington-based think tank.

Shannon Razsadin, executive director of Military Family Advisory Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said it’s incredibly important to understand it’s not always a money management issue.

“That feels personal for people. That feels like you're doing something wrong. But the reality is, some of these things are really outside of your control,” she said. “People are sometimes afraid because they don't want to look like they're irresponsible. We’re making sure that people recognize that there are things happening here that are outside people's control or are specifically related to military life.”

This fear of stigma is especially heightened for troops as they move to a new duty-station and don’t want to be seen as problematic in a new unit, Razsadin said.

Both reports offered recommendations on how to combat the issue.

Recommendations from CSIS included reforming the military’s basic needs allowance, increasing flexibility and support during duty-station moves, and improving military spouse unemployment with career programs and affordable child care options.

MFAN’s recommendations included changing the eligibility requirement for military families to enroll in federal assistance benefits and improving the way that the housing allowance is calculated to match an area’s rental market more accurately.

For its research, MFAN conducted phone interviews with 312 families experiencing food insecurity at military bases in Texas and the Tidewater region of Virginia. The majority had between one and three children, Razsadin said.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a family with limited or uncertain access to adequate food. To be secure is to have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. It’s about the quality of the food, not just quantity, and ensuring it meets the nutritional needs of a household.

While the Defense Department has not released a comprehensive study on the prevalence of food insecurity among its service members, an Army Public Health Center and Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service survey conducted in 2019 found nearly 33% of more than 5,600 respondents at a major Army base were marginally food insecure. The CSIS said the coronavirus pandemic, which began a year after the Army survey, has amplified hunger in the military community.

“There's a real tie here to the future of the all-volunteer force and military kids and making sure that they are eligible to serve and growing up in a healthy nutrition-rich life,” Razsadin said.

The CSIS report noted a similar concern. Researchers said children of current service members are more likely to enlist, “so reducing food insecurity among military families can improve physical and cognitive health among future recruits.”

Researchers also noted the military is making strides to address the problem. Congress mandated the Defense Department provide it a report on food insecurity in the military by Oct. 1 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the Pentagon to create a plan to strengthen security across the armed forces.

The most recent NDAA, which sets annual spending and policy priorities for the Defense Department, also mandated an allowance for basic needs. The Defense Department is deliberating the qualifications for and benefits due under the allowance, according to CSIS.

MFAN is continuing this year with food distribution events at military bases, including one later this month at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

“These food distribution events: one, we can't serve everyone, and two, they're not sustainable. They're a Band-Aid,” Razsadin said. “So much of this is about transition. It's about a move. It's about adding to your family. It's about those points in life where something changes. It’s putting those interventions in place, having those conversations and really lessening the stigma.”

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.
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