A Shocking Number of America’s Military Families Are Going Hungry

Along with countless sacrifices military families make to protect the U.S., one-quarter of them struggle with food insecurity.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Samantha Cowan is the digital producer for TakePart Live. She previously worked for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

More than 46 million Americans used a food pantry in 2012. While the number is staggering in itself, about 20 percent of those households include a family member who is serving or has served in the military, according to a survey released this month.

With help from 6,000 trained data collectors armed with tablets, Feeding America questioned more than 60,000 of its clients about the circumstances that led them to seek food assistance. Study participants answered questions about their education, age, and employment as well as the choices they had to make between such necessities as housing and health care.

For the first time, this quadrennial study on food bank patrons included two questions about military service. The first was “did you or did anyone in your household ever serve in the U.S. military?” If respondents replied yes, they were asked if any family member continued to serve full-time.

Based on those responses, Feeding America has learned that 20 percent of the households it serves include a veteran of the armed forces, and 4 percent of households include at least one member who is currently serving. 

Cross-referencing these numbers with those from the Department of Defense for Americans serving in the military, the survey estimates that 620,000 military households rely on food banks. 

The need for food assistance has increased among military families, noted Deborah Flateman, president and CEO of the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore. Last year, she began working with the United Service Organization to provide more than 200,000 pounds of food to hungry families around the Fort Meade, Md., area, Flateman told National Public Radio.

The Pentagon was quick to call out the survey’s methodology. Officials found fault with the focus on households instead of individuals and with the nondifferentiation between active and nonactive service members.

Pentagon spokesman Nate Christensen pointed out that service members can seek assistance from the private sector. But it’s not always that easy to ask for help.

“The reason they go to the food bank is it’s anonymous,” Joyce Raezer, executive director of the nonprofit National Military Family Association, told NPR. Pride gets in the way of vets and active-duty military seeking financial assistance. No military families were willing to go on record about food insecurity for NPR’s report.

While the Pentagon may take issue with the exact numbers in Feeding America’s findings, it agrees that service members are facing food insecurity. The disruptive lifestyle of men and women who serve the country is a likely culprit.

For a young member with a spouse and children, the constant moves from base to base can make finding work difficult for the nonmilitary spouse. Relying on one income is often not enough to make ends meet.

Feeding America calls the face of hunger “hardworking and hopeful.” Most of the people it serves, military and nonmilitary alike, have jobs yet have to make choices between basic needs, whether it’s gas for transportation, electric bills, or rent payments. A visit to a food bank can greatly ease the stress of a struggling family. 

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