Thousands of Military Families Struggle With Food Insecurity

Of military families, 24% face the hidden crisis and many are too afraid to speak up

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Alyssa Densham grew up an “Army brat,” traveling all around the world with her family, following her father from one military installation to another. When she met her husband, she was happy to settle down in one place and raise a family.

But 10 years ago, he told Densham he wanted to serve his country and join the Army. At the time, she was working for one of the largest food banks in the Northeast.

"I was working with people to identify how we can move the food from where it's grown to where people really need it, and that's the work I got to do for a number of years in Philadelphia until the Army moved us to Fort Sill, Oklahoma,” said Densham.

A year-and-a-half later, the Army moved the couple to Washington, D.C., along with their 6-month-old baby.

"And, you know, the cost of childcare in this area, even in 2015, was so high that we couldn't figure out how I would get a job that would pay enough to have full-time care for an infant, and that was really hard," said Densham.

People don't want to call unwanted attention to themselves. They don't want their chain of command, necessarily, to know that they're struggling.

NMFA Senior Deputy Director Eileen Huck

The family struggled to pay bills on her husband’s income, one of the lower pay grades in the military, yet too high for them to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Suddenly, Densham found herself turning to the same assistance she once provided for others.

“When I first showed up for one of those, I thought, 'Oh, this is a really cool thing. They're going to give us free groceries. this is really neat.' And then I looked on the form. I saw Capital Area Food Bank, and I realized that this was a similar program that I helped get food for in Philadelphia,” said Densham. "It was just this moment of just, just kind of a little bit of being shocked."

The News4 I-Team learned Densham’s situation is not unique. According to the Department of Defense, 24% of military families are food insecure. Food insecurity means families are unable to consistently afford enough nutritious food to live on. The problem of food insecurity is so extensive in the military, there is a food pantry on almost all U.S. military bases, according to the National Military Family Association.

NMFA Senior Deputy Director Eileen Huck said that she is seeing more families struggle than ever before and that the stigma of food insecurity prevents many from talking publicly about it.

"The fear is a huge problem, as well,” she said. “People don't want to call unwanted attention to themselves. They don't want their chain of command, necessarily, to know that they're struggling. They worry about the impact that this would have on the service member’s career.”

Although Densham and her husband no longer worry about food insecurity since he’s been promoted, she still asked not to identify him.

“In the military community, it's really hard because commanders don't like to know that its people think that it can affect their security clearances, and even though we're told it can't, you know, do we really know that it can't?" said Densham.

The Department of Defense said it's working to address that stigma. In September, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sent a memo to senior military leaders called “Taking Care of Our Service Members and Families,” directing them to take steps to do right by them including:

  • Review the prospective 2023 Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) tables to ensure that calculations reflect the unusually dynamic fluctuations in the housing market.
  • Fully fund commissaries to cut prices at the register, with the goal of achieving at least a 25 percent savings on grocery bills compared to the local marketplace.
  • Pay eligible Service members a Basic Needs Allowance starting January 2023, which is a supplemental allowance for Service members who qualify based on their gross household income.

Densham said she’s encouraged to hear top military officials are beginning to take action to improve the lives of military families so they won’t need to rely on government assistance programs like SNAP.

"I think it's really important that we have more discussions about how much it costs for military families to live in the places where we're sent," she said.

She said she believes if more military families speak up, more in leadership positions will listen.

"If our military members’ families aren't taken care of, they can't do their jobs well, but chances are if their families aren't eating well, if they're experiencing food insecurity, that military member is experiencing food insecurity, as well, and that's, that's not a space that we want our military members to be in," Densham said.

After Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act last year, the DOD is expected to start delivering a basic needs allowance to eligible service members in the new year.

A DOD spokesperson told the I-Team, "The Basic Needs Allowance (BNA) is a monthly allowance for active-duty Service members with dependents whose gross household income falls below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines. We anticipate that eligible Service members will include junior enlisted members with larger families. Service members must apply, provide appropriate documentation to substantiate household income, and, if they meet eligibility requirements, will be approved for payment. The Department is working aggressively to issue implementing guidance and deliver the first BNA payments in January 2023 as required by law."

Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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