Food Insecurity Is Common in the US Military. Will Congress Vote to Expand Benefits? (Civil Eats)

Gabriel Pietrorazio
July 10, 2023

This piece originally appeared in Civil Eats on July 10, 2023.

Raising four growing boys while serving in the U.S. Army was a daunting assignment for Roteshia Adams, who enlisted in 2007 and rose to the rank of E-4 specialist while stationed at the nation’s largest active-duty armored post in Fort Cavazos, Texas. Her spouse of 14 years, Duvuri Sanders, is also in the Army, and together they have often found it difficult keeping enough food on the table.

“Being dual-military, that was a struggle,” said Adams, who explained their earnings were too much to receive SNAP benefits, but not enough to buy the groceries they needed to feed a family of six.

Adams, who retired from the reserves last year, said each unit had an assigned financial officer that soldiers were able to consult for support whenever they faced nutritional hardships. That person would advise service members to visit their on-base chapel to peruse the food pantry or give them gift cards to use at the commissary. In other words, food insecurity has become a normal part of military life.

The Fort Hood metro, located 60 miles north of Austin, is home to almost 42,000 stationed active-duty service members in addition to more than 48,000 family members who live with them. Sixteen percent of residents inside Fort Cavazos, formerly known as Fort Hood, struggle with poverty and many face food insecurity, but recent inflation has made it worse—in Fort Hood and elsewhere around the nation.

Even the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA)—the entity in charge of stocking groceries for service members—has seen the impacts of inflation affecting staple foods on military bases and installations scattered across the country.

The military reduced grocery prices at military bases last fall, to an average of 22 percent less than in civilian grocery stores. Bill Moore, director and CEO at DeCA, said the savings for military families should exceed 25 percent for the current fiscal year.

“Part of the challenge is the culture of pride in the military. We made a strategic decision to host the food distribution events off-base to remove as many barriers to entry as humanly possible.”

Despite the cuts, many active-duty service members struggle to feed their families. A recent RAND Corporation report found that more than 15 percent of all active-duty military personnel are food insecure.

Food insecurity is a glaring problem, said Adams, who has been tracking the problem more closely since receiving her recent honorable discharge. She has been helping redress its harms at the Fort Hood Spouses Club, a nonprofit that supports military spouses through community outreach, by organizing monthly food distributions in her own backyard.

“I began to see it more not only in my home, but within our community,” said Adams. “I was listening to my neighbors and the ladies in the spouses’ club. They were forced to stretch meals, get loans, or visit the food pantry. The BAS isn’t enough.”

The Basic Allowance for Subsistence, or BAS, is a tax-free monthly stipend provided by the Department of Defense to offset the cost of meals. The food cost index, published by USDA, is utilized to adjust the BAS benefits annually.

Currently, officers receive $311 to spend on food a month, while enlistees—who receive less pay—get $452 a month. Enlistees didn’t gain full access to the allowance until 2002. Yet the Defense Department still required them to pay for their on-base meals.

BAS has risen by 28 percent in the last decade, but accessing healthy and affordable food is still difficult for soldiers, both financially and socially. And while the House and Senate have been debating the limitations of BAS and other military quality-of-life concerns recently, they have yet to make any significant changes. In the meantime, philanthropic charities have been stepping up to respond to the daily needs of military families.

‘We Can’t Host a Food Distribution Event Every Day’

Fort Cavazos has one of the nation’s highest levels of food insecurity among military service members and their families. Virginia’s Hampton Roads, where the Norfolk Naval Station is located, the U.S. Army’s Fort Liberty in North Carolina, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, are three other notable military communities coping with its crippling effects.

Shannon Razsadin, the wife of an active-duty Navy spouse who sits as one of three civilian advisors to the Military Family Readiness Council for the Secretary of Defense, is also the executive director at the Military Families Advisory Network (MFAN).

She explained that the organization determined through national polling that these are four locations where residents need the most help accessing food. This polling motivated MFAN to respond to this national problem by delivering more than 2 million meals to over 10,000 military families at 18 food distributions since May 2021.

Active-duty service members weren’t the only members of the military community who benefited from their charitable acts. No one was turned away, so veterans and reservists also received support from these disbursements. However, none of their events have ever occurred on military bases.

“Part of the challenge is the culture of pride in the military,” said Razsadin. “We made a strategic decision to host the food distribution events off-base to remove as many barriers to entry as humanly possible.”

Not all nonprofit groups have made that choice. Food distribution events overseen by outside providers are considered non-federal entities, according to U.S. Navy Commander Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson.

Schwegman told Civil Eats that installation commanders may determine whether services provided by organizations like MFAN and Feeding America “conflict with or detract from local DoD programs.” These same commanding officers can ultimately approve or deny access to charitable organizations, including MFAN.

Lack of access to bases is a direct barrier to feeding military families. The events are often out of sight and mind for many active-duty members, ultimately limiting the reach, visibility, and impact of their donations.

“I honestly think that if the installation took on that [on-base] approach, we would see a lot more families not facing food insecurity. We can reach a lot more people,” said Adams. “That could get more people out . . . and the stigma wouldn’t be so much attached to it, because of the camaraderie in the military community, especially amongst spouses.”

An internal survey conducted by Feeding America found that more than a third of its affiliated food banks had a military installation or base located within their service area in 2021.

Vince Hall, the former CEO at Feeding San Diego, said he was surprised by the scale of military food insecurity in Southern California when he started working in that role and began visiting military installations throughout the region.

“It was shocking to me that solving hunger for the families of active-duty military service members was going to be a part of my work,” Hall admitted. “I had no knowledge of the severity of this issue and was embarrassed that our country has stationed so many military families here but is not paying them enough to live in San Diego.”

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonpartisan nonprofit think tank, reported that the San Diego-Carlsbad metro area ranks 11th for the highest cost of living among the top 100 largest metro areas in the nation.

Hall, who now works as the chief government relations officer at Feeding America, helped steward the founding of Feeding Heroes, a local initiative to assist one of the nation’s largest concentrations of military personnel in San Diego.

An estimated 120,000 active-duty service members call San Diego County their home, a combined figure of 403,000 when including their families. Feeding San Diego distributed more than 3.9 million pounds of food through that program in partnership with 12 nonprofits and four schools located near military installations in 2022.