Read this article as originally published in NBC News.
Dozens of people formed a line outside Dewey Elementary School on a recent Monday, awaiting the arrival of a Feeding San Diego truck that gives out free groceries every other week.
The vast majority weren’t homeless or even newly unemployed. They’re the husbands and wives of U.S. military service members.
“I knew we wouldn’t be wealthy, but I thought it would be a lot more manageable,” said Desiree Mieir, a mother of four whose Navy husband’s most recent deployment lasted almost eight months.
Mieir can’t afford cable and often leaves her home’s air conditioning shut off to keep her utility bill down. “I didn’t know I’d have to try this hard,” she said.
To make ends meet, Mieir and thousands of other military families around the country routinely rely on federal food assistance, charities or loans from family. Their struggles are caused by a variety of factors: the high cost of living in cities like San Diego, difficulty qualifying for federal food assistance, and a transient life that makes it challenging for spouses to build careers.
It’s difficult to quantify the full scope of the problem. The Department of Defense doesn’t collect data on how many service members are seeking food assistance. But interviews with dozens of military family members, as well as visits to makeshift food pantries like the one at Dewey Elementary, indicate that the number of military families struggling to put food on the table is substantial.
Pentagon records obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request give just a hint of the problem. The data shows that during the 2018-19 school year, a third of children at DOD-run schools on military bases in the United States — more than 6,500 children — were eligible for free or reduced lunches. At one base — Georgia’s Fort Stewart — 65 percent were eligible.
“I think it is a national outrage,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former army helicopter pilot, said. “Can you imagine being deployed and you’re in the Persian Gulf, or you’re in Iraq right now, and you’re worried whether or not your kids are able to have a meal?”
“We should say if you come to the military, your kids are going to get a good education, you’re going to get good housing, and your kids are going to be fed,” she added.
Duckworth and Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., have been working on a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act that would help raise the income of some service members whose basic pay is close to or below the poverty line.
On a recent visit to the makeshift food pantry at Dewey Elementary, Melissa Carlisle, a mother of two whose husband serves in the military, picked up a bag of potatoes that she plans to spread out over three different meals and freeze the rest for later.
“They have this military illusion that we’re just rolling in dough, but we’re not,” Carlisle said. “…We’re just really good with the little bit of money that we get.”
Almost everyone who gets groceries at the Feeding San Diego pantry at Dewey Elementary is military, and everything is free, so Carlisle and other military spouses start lining up early to fill their bags with fresh produce, snacks for the kids, and basic staples such as flour and bread.
At a school where almost 80 percent of students are the children of active-duty military personnel and more than 70 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunches, the biweekly free groceries often make the difference between struggling to pay the bills or simply going hungry.
When she’s not getting free food from Feeding San Diego, Carlisle normally shops at the military commissary, which is tax-free, or at Ralph’s, a grocery store in San Diego where purchases of food accrue points she can use on gas. “You don’t need to decide, ‘Do I need gas, or do I need food?'”
But Carlisle said that even with help, just getting by is a constant worry.
“I wouldn’t say check to check, but pretty darn close. If you sneeze hard, a flat tire goes out, that’s it,” she said.
The lower-ranked enlisted service members in all branches, those with pay grades from E-1 to E-5, make somewhere between $18,648 and $40,759 in basic pay, depending on their rank and years of service. This doesn’t include their allowances for housing and food or special compensation like combat pay.
But the housing allowance, which can range widely depending on where a service member lives, is often enough to push a family out of the eligibility bracket for federal food assistance.
Even so, 2017 data from an annual Census Bureau survey showed that more than 16,000 active-duty service members received food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office published a report recommending that the Defense Department start tracking data on service members’ and their families’ use of food assistance programs such as SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, but aid groups and lawmakers question whether the department is collecting meaningful data.
“They don’t even have adequate data about how many people are impacted,” Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said. That’s a problem, said Protas, whose group has been a leader in researching military hunger, because without accurate data on how many families are affected, it’s hard for policymakers to address the issue.