Battle at home: FOX4 investigation finds service members struggle with food insecurity in growing numbers

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Like many single moms, Jane constantly worries if she has enough to feed her two children. She knows there are many nights when they go to bed hungry.

But Jane isn’t homeless, or unemployed.

She’s an active-duty Army sergeant in Missouri, who has served her country for 13 years.

“I signed up to serve and protect my country,” Jane told FOX4. “But I didn’t sign up to serve, protect, and struggle to feed my children.”

A FOX4 investigation reveals she isn’t the only service member struggling to put food on her family’s table. We discovered Jane is among a growing number of active-duty soldiers across the country who battle food insecurity.

The Numbers

  • There are food pantries and food distribution programs on or near every military base in the country, according to MAZON, a national advocacy organization working to end hunger
  • 1 in 8 military families reported being food insecure in a 2019 survey by the Military Family Advisory Network
  • Active-duty soldiers spent more than $21 million in food stamps at military commissaries, according to a 2016 GAO report. FOX4 asked for updated numbers, but the Defense Commissary Agency refused our request
  • Pentagon records show one-third of military children in Department of Defense-run schools in the United States qualified for free or reduced lunches in 2018-2019.

‘A Widespread Problem’

 “Food insecurity is a pretty widespread problem in the military,” said Jane, who asked FOX4 to change her name to protect her identity. She’s afraid of repercussions from her commanding officers.

“I know it’s widespread here because I’m one of the people who have rallied for those who need help. I volunteer to take food to people in our unit and to take this issue to our commanding officers. I ask them if they know that this many soldiers and their families are going without food.

 “The military doesn’t want the public to know about this issue because it would project that the military isn’t perfect,” she added. “But I’m a sergeant and this impacts me and my family.”

To gauge how many military families in Missouri struggle to feed their children, FOX4 analyzed one benchmark of food insecurity.

We reviewed records from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about the number of students – whose parents are active-duty or in the National Guard – who qualified for free and reduced school lunches in the past three years.

In 2020, our analysis revealed:

  • 30% of the 14,617 military-family students in school districts across Missouri qualified for assistance under the National School Lunch Program. Children in low-income families are eligible for the program
  • 26% of the 2,263 military-family students currently enrolled in 15 school districts in the Kansas City area qualified for free and reduced-priced lunches.

Digging deeper, here are the percentages of military-family students who qualified for free and low-cost school meals in a handful of local districts:

  • 44% in the Belton School District
  • 35% in the North Kansas City School District
  • 25% in the Blue Springs School District
  • 23% in the Liberty School District
  • 20% in the Park Hill School District

FOX4 found an even higher percentage of struggling military students in the St. Joseph School District. Records show that district has 176 students whose parents are currently serving in the military, and 60% of those students qualified for low-cost and free lunches.

Records also revealed 100% of students with active-duty parents in the Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts qualified for free lunches in 2020. But those districts told FOX4 they provide free meals to all students – regardless of their families’ incomes.

Some school districts also said they have provided free lunches to all students during the COVID-19 pandemic. But experts say that doesn’t change the fact that those military-family students still qualified for the School Lunch Program.

Click here for a list of resources if you want to help

‘It’s a Dirty Little Secret

Josh Protas, vice-president of public policy for Mazon, said FOX4’s findings are a good indicator of just how widespread this issue is in Missouri and nationwide.

“There’s clearly a problem here that’s going unaddressed when we have that many military children who are needing that extra assistance,” said Protas, . “The issue of food insecurity among currently serving military families is shocking to people. They’re surprised that this is an issue at all.”

“The truth is it’s a dirty little secret that people (in the military) would rather not acknowledge,” he added. “And yet, it really is a widespread phenomenon.”

Mazon has addressed military hunger for nearly 10 years.

“In past years, nationwide, close to 50% of military children in DODE-run schools qualified for free and reduced-price meals. It’s between one-third and one-half in some schools.”

“In Fort Stewart in Georgia, it was 65% of the military children,” he added. “So that tells you everything you need to know.”

Jane said her daughter is among the thousands of military students in Missouri who qualify for those reduced-price school lunches.

“There are a lot of soldiers out there who are struggling,” she said. “I’m one of them.”

Applying for benefits frowned upon

Unlike many of her military peers, Jane isn’t ashamed that she asked for help to cover her daughter’s school lunches.

“It’s very important to know that my child has food while she’s at school and that she’s not distracted because she’s hungry.”

This proud soldier also told FOX4 that she relies on a local food pantry and government programs like WIC and food stamps to feed her family.

It’s an action that bucks the military’s unspoken code not to admit to food insecurity.

 “The first time I applied for WIC and SNAP benefits, it was frowned upon,” Jane said. “There’s an attitude in the military that you just deal with it. You don’t whine about those things. You’re a soldier. You lace up your boots and keep pushing.

“But I didn’t care,” she added. “It didn’t hurt my pride. Those people are not living what I’m living every day. I’m doing what I need to do for my family.”

 As an Army sergeant (E-5) with 13 years of service, Jane makes about $42,000 a year.

She sticks to a tight budget, doesn’t have cable TV or Netflix, drives an old car, and still she struggles.

“I’m not even living paycheck to paycheck,” Jane said. “There are many times when I worry if there’s enough money for food for my kids.”

To combat her own hunger, Jane drinks a gallon of water a day. She also eats a lot of inexpensive ramen noodles.

“I used to eat salads, but I can’t afford that healthy stuff,” Jane said. “I’ve changed my eating habits to ensure my kids have enough to eat.

“We eat stuff that will fill us up, like bread, noodles, and potatoes,” she added. “Half the time I cook a big meal and freeze it, but sometimes there’s nothing left over. And my kids say they’re still hungry. I have to tell them that they can have a piece of fruit (from the food pantry), drink some water, or just wait until the next meal. And that’s tough.”

Jane and her children rent a modest, two-bedroom apartment.

“I can’t live on base for free,” she said, dispelling a misconception some civilians may have about military life. “And I can’t eat in the mess hall free anytime I want. Do you know how much easier it would be if those things were actually free?”

The military gives Jane a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), but she said that monthly-stipend only covers about 75% of her rent. And she still has other expenses, including gas, food, utilities, milk, diapers, and daycare.

“That’s my tipping point,” Jane said. “My daycare fee. The military doesn’t provide free daycare on base and there’s no military discount (in her community) for daycare. I know the employees at my daycare work hard, but their rates are high. It’s $600 a month for one child.”

SNAP benefits common among military families

Jane’s struggles to feed her family and make ends meet come as no surprise retired Lieutenant Colonel Bob Krenzel.

During his 24-years in the Army, he saw many junior enlisted soldiers and their families fight those same battles.

 “It was not uncommon for military families to use SNAP benefits,” said Krenzel, who retired in 2015 and now lives in the Kansa City area. “I was an officer. I didn’t need those benefits.

“But junior enlisted soldiers do not make a lot of money,” he added. “The military salary is designed to support a single soldier. And from my perspective, it was really a challenge to support a family on that salary.”

According to the military’s 2020 basic pay chart an E-2 (junior enlisted officer) with four years of service make about $23,000 a year. If that soldier has a spouse and one child, that salary is slightly above the federal poverty income level for a family of three.

“This is about taking care of the people who are taking care of us,” Krenzel said. “Many people love to say that our soldiers are our most valuable resource. But I’d be stunned if the average person knows there are soldiers on food stamps.”

Krenzel, however, said the public should know about service members’ challenges with food insecurity. They could impact our national security.

“This is about mission readiness,” he said. “If a soldier is worried about whether his family has enough to eat tonight, he’s not focused on the mission.

“Our soldiers,” he added, “should not have to struggle with something as basic as food.”

COVID-19 compounds food insecurity problem

Experts told FOX4 those struggles increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among two-income military households.

 “There were high rates of unemployment among military spouses before the pandemic,” Protas said. “Now we’re seeing spikes in those rates.”

Records show the unemployment rate among military spouses before COVID-19 was 24%. During COVID, that number climbed to 30% or more.

 “So when a military spouse might have had a part-time job or a full-time job that was adding to the household’s income, when that goes away, the challenges just mount as a result,” Protas said. “And if that household is now trying to get by just on a low-base pay of the enlisted members, it’s really difficult.”

What level of food insecurity is acceptable?

Some military leaders, however, downplay the severity of food insecurity among military families.

“I believe that you should be cautious in coming to the conclusion that the families of lower-ranking active duty service members are subject to food insecurity to any large degree,” Joe Driskell, executive director of the Missouri Military Preparedness and Enhancement Commission, told FOX4. “I bet it exists in Missouri, but I have not detected it to any significant degree.”

Protas and other military advocates question why any degree of food insecurity is acceptable.

“There’s no doubt that the military is reluctant to acknowledge that this problem exists,” Protas said. “The Pentagon says that when you compare the pay and benefits to counterparts in the private sector it’s more than fair. But the fact that we have food pantries serving military families across the country says otherwise.”

Some military leaders also say soldiers with food insecurity are simply careless with their money.

“The other pushback we hear about this issue are allegations about a young recruit who goes out and blows his first paycheck on a new car and makes an irresponsible financial decision,” Protas said. “We’re not talking about those single individuals who don’t have others to support. We’re talking about junior enlisted service members who have multiple dependents in their households.”

Jane called allegations of reckless spending by service members misguided and insulting.

“Those who make those statements are sheltered and don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. “And they’re putting a bad stereotype on our junior enlisted soldiers who serve this county.”

Battle Plan to address the problem

But are there any strategies to combat this issue? Or maneuvers to ensure those who serve and protect our country no longer struggle with food insecurity?

Mazon and other military advocates recommend the following:

  • Urge Congress to include the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The measure would provide targeted cash benefits — on average about $400 a month — to service members who do not qualify for SNAP. The House approved this measure; the Senate did not. The provision is now pending in a Congressional conference committee;
  • Exclude a soldier’s BAH as income when determining SNAP eligibility. When BAH is consider as added income, it often makes struggling service members ineligible for those benefits
  • Establish professional licensing agreements for military spouses in all 50 states. Military families move every two to three years, but a spouse’s professional license doesn’t always transfer. That creates a financial burden because those spouses may have trouble finding a job in their licensed field. Fewer than 20 states have these agreements; Missouri became one this year
  • Increase the base pay for soldiers. The 2021 NDAA includes a 3% raise for service members. Lawmakers said the final conference report on this authorization act should come shortly after the November 3 election.

Krenzel supports this battle plan and hopes state and federal lawmakers take action.

“I would ask them to put themselves in the shoes of that struggling soldier or spouse who is trying to serve their country and probably not complaining,” he said. “They deserve better.”

Jane said there’s one other strategic move the military could take to help struggling families like hers.

“Provide a child care allowance,” she said. “Some of our lower enlisted soldiers who have kids spend half of their paychecks on daycare.”

“I know a lot of dedicated military members who’ve left the service so they can provide for their families. There have been some great, great people who have left, and I cried so badly.”

Asked if she plans to leave at the end of her tour, Jane said: “No, I plan to re-enlist and serve my 20-years. But I’m going to start officer training because I’ll make more and won’t have to worry about feeding my children.

“I don’t regret my service,” she added. “But I am disappointed. I think the military could do better. And I hope that talking about this issue will bring awareness and some type of change.”

Lawmakers react

FOX4 reached out to a number of Missouri lawmakers about this problem, and received the following responses:

No service member should be food insecure. That’s why I supported a three percent pay raise for troops last year and will do so again this year. That’s why I also support Missouri’s decision to allow license reciprocity, so military spouses can transfer their professional licenses quickly and easily when they and their active-duty spouses are stationed in our state. And that’s why I voted last year to direct the Secretary of Defense to work with state governors to improve license reciprocity even further. Our service members represent the best of our nation, and I will continue to fight to make sure they and their families have everything they need

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley

The safety and well-being of our military families has and continues to be a priority of the Congresswoman. She has consistently supported military pay increases, including this year, and has been an advocate for changes in Missouri law to allow employment licensing reciprocity for military spouses. Congresswoman Hartzler shares this concern over reports of food insecurity among military families and supported a provision in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the Department of Defense to study and report to Congress on this problem. The report will be included in the DoD’s Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation which is due to Congress early next year. This report will provide the necessary data and information to effectively address this issue moving forward. 

Additionally, after hearing concerns from Whiteman Air Force Base about a gap in eligibility for dislocation allowances, Congresswoman Hartzler included a provision in the FY20 NDAA to ensure service members forced to move from any type of military housing, including dormitories, receive a partial dislocation allowance. Prior to this provision, service members only received this benefit if they were forced to move from family housing. This provision fixed a gap in eligibility that prevented many of our lowest paid service members from receiving this financial benefit if they were forced to move out of a dorm.”  

Missouri U.S. Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler

When the families of our men and women in uniform struggle at home, our military struggles abroad.  This is exactly why I’ve consistently supported pay raises for military families and increased funding for our military. I will always stand up for those that defend our country and our freedom

Missouri U.S. Representative Sam Graves

Missouri U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver answered a number of questions at length, you can view those responses here.

FOX4 also reached out to the United States Department of Defense and are awaiting a reply.

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