Food insecurity rises in US military ranks. So does honesty about it. (Christian Science Monitor)

Anna Mulrine Grobe
December 2, 2021

This article originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor on December 1, 2021.

When her husband was a Marine Corps sergeant, Bianca Strzalkowski struggled with what, to the couple, felt like a shameful secret: Even on their active-duty military salary, which included a housing allowance, they could not afford enough food and diapers for their young family.

They quietly visited food banks to pick up boxes of recently expired groceries. By the time she was pregnant with her second son, the Strzalkowskis were relying on military MREs, or meals ready to eat – distributed to soldiers in the field – for family dinners.

“There is nothing more stressful than having your husband fighting in combat in Afghanistan and having to lean on your extended family members, or payday loans, to feed your children,” she says.

The official response to the plight of military families suffering food insecurity has long been muted. “There’s a culture of resilience among military families, and there are pros and cons with that. Part of it is that families are expected – said or unsaid – to suck it up, because there’s always someone worse off than you,” says Shannon Razsadin, president of the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN).

But within the halls of the Pentagon, that stoic definition of resilience is becoming less tenable as the problem continues to grow. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 1 in 8 military families was struggling to put food on the table, according to MFAN research. Today, that figure is 1 in 5. A congressional report released this summer called the situation “alarming.”

Concern is amplified, too, by a surge of inflation affecting not just grocery bills but also other everyday expenses. The U.S. consumer price index has jumped 6.2% in 12 months, led by categories like energy and used cars. Food prices, up 5.3%, haven’t risen at a faster pace since 2008.

Among military children, roughly one-third of those who attend schools run by the Department of Defense on U.S. military bases qualify for free and reduced lunches.

“Top of the mind”

These realities have prompted what advocates say are promising policy changes both within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill. They are aimed at helping troops get food on the table – and at tackling a historic tendency to cringe at what they see as the undesirable optics of military families in need of food assistance.

The week prior to Thanksgiving, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged that economic burdens wrought by the pandemic and tight housing markets have “made financial struggles even tougher.” He added that “making sure our people have enough to eat” is “certainly top of the mind” for him.

Secretary Austin directed Pentagon officials to develop a strategy “to strengthen food security across the force” by early next year, as well as provide a “toolkit” of resources that troops can use in the meantime. “Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about,” he said. “Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them.”

But while the Pentagon announcement marked a long-awaited acknowledgment of the problem, it was “underwhelming” in its scope, says Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON, a Jewish organization that has long been pushing to address hunger among military families. “A 90-day review? A toolkit? We’ve known about this issue for years.”

The DOD toolkit in some cases involves providing resources like lists of food programs, but what’s needed, Mr. Protas adds, are policy changes that pay particular attention to the complexities that strain the system.

Prospects for action in Congress

Secretary Austin directed a 10% increase in basic housing allowance toward places that had a 10% or more increase in rental costs, for example – promising on its face. But this temporary increase in the housing allowance may actually bump some military families over the qualifying income limit for federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

More encouraging, he says, is what’s going on across town, on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been working on their own solutions to military food insecurity. This year’s defense budget bill, currently making its way through Congress, includes a provision that would give a “basic needs allowance” to troops with a household income of less than 130% of the federal poverty line.

In the House version of the bill, the military housing allowance for its troops would be excluded from the household income calculation for military families – but not in the Senate version. “We’re very hopeful that the House version will prevail,” says Mr. Protas.

One mom’s struggle

Such policy changes are critical, says Erika Tebbens, a Navy wife who struggled to make ends meet when her family was stationed outside Seattle, one of the nation’s pricier cities. She is college educated, but with the frequent moves that military families are known to make, she was unable to find full-time work in the city, though she landed a job as a part-time bank teller.

After Ms. Tebbens’ baby was born, a civilian co-worker told her she should apply for the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. “I said, ‘I’m pretty sure we’re not going to qualify.’ But we did. I was honestly shocked that any military family in our country would be eligible for this type of government assistance – or need it.”

What she didn’t qualify for was SNAP, after the great expense of child care forced her to reduce her part-time hours to one day per week. “We tried, but those benefits we couldn’t get, because with WIC they don’t include the military housing allowance as part of your income, but with SNAP they do.”

She also didn’t discuss her plight widely. “I didn’t realize how common it was until years later,” she says. More than 23,000 active-duty troops used SNAP in 2013, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office.

“There was a very real fear about what could happen to your husband or wife’s career if you seek help,” Ms. Strzalkowski says.

The stigma stems in large part from the expectation of strong self-reliance in the military, and the historic way in which commanders have implied that an inability to afford groceries could be tied to financial mismanagement.

Just last month, the top enlisted leader in the U.S. Army, Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, when asked about food insecurity in the military, questioned whether the military pays enlisted service members enough to support their families but also raised the possibility of financial mismanagement.

“Did you get a really nice car, really nice boat, a motorcycle, and can’t feed [the] family?” He added, “I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, absolutely not, but we have to manage the money we have.” He then spoke about financial readiness classes.

Yet such an emphasis on financial literacy is “insulting and condescending” given the unrelenting fiscal realities many military – indeed many American – families face, Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, co-sponsor of the House legislation, said in a statement. “If anything, their response has helped exacerbate this problem by keeping the barriers of shame and stigma to assistance intact.”

A stigma gives way to open support

The stigma has long made food assistance a sticking point among some U.S. officials (inside and outside the Pentagon) who are wary of the optics of American troops qualifying for such aid – particularly in a culture that has long preached projections of strength and quiet forbearance when it comes to personal problems.

The late Sen. John McCain championed a similar basic needs allowance supplement for troops, long since expired, that required service members who used it to seek permission within their chains of command. This in turn made some troops reluctant to avail themselves of it, particularly given that financial struggles are the number one reason people in government lose their security clearances.

Today, most major military bases across the United States have an active network of food banks just outside the installation gates, often with easy-to-access drive-thru windows, which may encourage soldiers sheepish about accepting such charity.

For December meal distributions, the Military Family Advisory Network is already at waitlist capacity. This has come in part from the growing buy-in among commanders. “There was initially some pushback, but now we’re seeing the support,” says Ms. Razsadin, who notes that the commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels, recently attended an event to help hand out meals.

More than just a food issue

The willingness to discuss military food insecurity by President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden has helped to destigmatize the topic among top military leadership, experts say. The White House has reiterated its support for the basic needs allowance legislation, as well as its focus on providing more sources of affordable child care – base day care centers are often oversubscribed – and lowering the unemployment rate for military spouses, which was nearly seven times greater than the national unemployment rate even pre-pandemic.

The two are interconnected, since the lack of affordable child care “continues to be a major contributor to military spouse unemployment,” Denise Hollywood, chief community and programs officer for Blue Star Families, noted in House testimony on Nov. 10. Indeed, 34% of active-duty spouses who were looking for work cite child care as a barrier to their employment.

“It’s not just food – it’s other basic needs. We can’t treat one without treating the other,” says Nipa Kamdar, a researcher on the faculty of Baylor College in Texas who studies hunger in the veteran community. This is particularly true given the constant restart that happens when military families move every three years on average, often to new homes where they have no family or support network.

Ms. Strzalkowski, for her part, notes that it was when they got new duty orders to Yuma, Arizona, that their family’s financial situation took a downhill turn. Before the move, “I had a management position, and we built our lives off of these two incomes. Then we moved, and I couldn’t find employment.

“People have this misconception externally that we have a high income, we have all these benefits thrown at us, that our housing and medical is free,” she adds. “We weren’t thinking of the cost-of-living allowance difference, that our electricity bill is going to skyrocket – it didn’t even occur to me that I’d have trouble finding a job.”

By 2011, Ms. Strzalkowski had won a national military spouse award and was traveling the country as the public face of military family members, working with then-first lady Michelle Obama. “This came with some awesome experiences, but behind closed doors we were struggling.” Her relationship with her husband was strained, and their precarious financial position “definitely affected how I felt about him continuing a military career.”

“We risk losing good talent”

This points to the larger societal costs – and national security implications – of food insecurity within the military, says Mr. Protas. “When service members are struggling and look to leave the military to better support their families, then we risk losing good talent,” he says. What’s more, service members of color are disproportionately affected, since they are disproportionately represented in the junior enlisted ranks, which are most likely to grapple with food insecurity.

Ms. Strzalkowski’s husband retired from the Marine Corps in 2018, and the family is back on firm financial footing. “I feel like I can breathe now. It feels like somebody else’s life, when we were a young enlisted family.”

Ms. Tebbens was able to leave the WIC program after she went back to work full time. By the time her son was 18 months old, “we didn’t need the benefits anymore, and that was that,” she says. “We can now afford to give generously to various charities and donate to our local food pantries.”

In the years since, “Every time I talk about it, and it’s very bipartisan, I’ve never met anyone who isn’t totally appalled or confused and tells me it’s the first time they’ve heard that anyone in the military qualifies for food assistance.”

The key, advocates say, is making it clear that this is a policy problem that needs to be fixed. “Once families are able to get to a threshold, their resiliency kicks in,” Dr. Kamdar says. “They don’t want to be constantly in need of charity. They want to be able to thrive on their own.”