(Adds Pentagon roadmap on food security in paragraphs 5-6. An earlier version of the story was corrected to remove a reference to a former lawmaker.)
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Veterans and US troops, especially those in lower ranks, are going hungry or having trouble affording adequate food at a rate much higher than the general population, a survey found.
One in six military and veteran families were experiencing food insecurity or hunger in 2021, the Military Family Advisory Network reported Thursday. There is also a significant relationship between food insecurity and enlisted rank, geography, race, and ethnicity, the organization said. The general US population’s food insecurity rate is about 10.5%, the Agriculture Department estimates.
“It is definitely concerning for us, especially knowing the current situation that we are all experiencing with inflation and cost of living and things like that,” MFAN President Shannon Razsadin said. The data was collected before inflation skyrocketed this year, so the reality now could be even worse, she said. The rate spiked to 1 in 5 during the height of the pandemic, but was still higher than the 1 in 8 respondents who reported food insecurity in 2019.
The issue has also spurred concern on the Hill, as lawmakers fret hungry troops or their families could end up harming military readiness and US national security. Lawmakers are considering mandating that the Pentagon and USDA collect data on troops’ and their families’ food insecurity and use of federal anti-hunger programs, as part of a defense authorization bill.
The Pentagon on Thursday issued a roadmap aiming to bolster food security among troops. Among other fixes, the report detailed plans to review pay and benefits for service members, enhance economic opportunities for their spouses, and encourage service members to ask for help. The report acknowledged the “structural or perceived barriers” to service members getting help for hunger.
The focus of the blueprint is “to equip our servicemembers and families with the tools, skills, and resources necessary to ensure they have access to sufficient nutritious food to meet the myriad demands of the military mission, without having to endure undue hardship or make difficult financial and personal decisions that may impact their quality of life,” Gilbert Cisneros Jr., the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in the report.
Lawmakers last year also cosponsored a bipartisan bill (H.R. 5346) to boost access to nutrition assistance for military families.
Food Insecurity Rates
Almost a tenth of those experiencing food insecurity said they are “hungry” or have very low food security, the advisory network found in its survey, conducted online in the fall and winter of last year. The sampling included 8,638 participants from all US states, two territories, and 22 countries.
Another 7.6% of respondents said they were “food insecure” or had low food security. More than 95% of food insecure families use support resources, including federal benefits and community help, MFAN found.
The most common respondents were spouses of active- duty service members, followed by active-duty service members. Most 2021 respondents were between 25 and 39 years old, and the bulk were female.
Families of enlisted troops have a higher rate of problems with getting enough food than families of officers, the survey found. About 23% of those enlisted indicated food insecurity, roughly five times the number of officer families that indicated the same.
Individuals belonging to ethnic minorities, also appear to be disproportionately affected by food insecurity. American Indian or Alaskan native respondents experienced hunger at higher levels than any other demographic group, with more than 20% of respondents identifying as hungry, according to the report. Of the 1,249 respondents identifying as Hispanic or Latino in 2021, 13.2% of this population was experiencing hunger, and an additional 12% were experiencing food insecurity.
“Unfortunately, the data show a statistically significant relationship between food insecurity and respondent race. White respondents were statistically less likely to be hungry or food insecure than non-white respondents,” MFAN said in the report.
Hill Debates Amendment
The fiscal 2022 defense authorization measure directed the defense secretary to study food insecurity in the armed forces and present results to Congress by October. Lawmakers have also mandated a basic needs allowance as part of that measure—though Razsadin urged the Department of Defense to make the basic needs allowance more accessible.
The size of the allowance is currently determined by calculating the difference between a military member’s monthly income, and the monthly income level at 130% of the poverty line wherever they live, with an average of about $400 a month, according to the Military Officers Association of America.
The House on Thursday agreed to an amendment to the fiscal 2023 defense authorization measure that would mandate the data collection, and also require the Defense Department to train and designate a point person at military bases who would refer service members to food assistance.
Razsadin also said troops’ housing allowance should be included in their income calculation, as the current law prevents some service members from accessing food stamps—an issue Congress should consider as part of the 2023 must-pass Farm Bill.
“And more long term, we need to make sure that military compensation is where it needs to be,” she said. “Ultimately, military families are asked to do a lot, and we saw a decline in people’s likelihood of recommending military service to someone they care about and that’s something that’s really concerning to us.” Roughly 62.9% of military and veteran family respondents would recommend service in 2021, down from about 75% in 2019, the survey found.
The advisory network’s survey mirrors findings elsewhere. About a third of respondents surveyed at a major US Army installation were marginally food insecure in a 2019 survey, released last year, from the US Army Public Health Center and the Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. That compares with 17.9% of all US households that were marginally food insecure that same year, the USDA found.
“The costs of inaction are high, since persistent food insecurity among the military and veteran communities threatens U.S. national security,” Jamie Lutz and Caitlin Welsh of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a paper last month.
The issue of hunger also extends to veterans, who may have a stigma around obtaining federal assistance, and higher rates of disability.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration in 2017 adopted food insecurity screening, in which veterans are tested for food insecurity yearly at their physicals, and made the screening survey more comprehensive last year.
At a hearing this week, lawmakers voiced concerns that the VA’s numbers may undercount the rate of veteran hunger. While the VA estimates that about 2% of veterans experience food insecurity, a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service puts the rate of working-age veterans in food insecure households at around 11%.
The VA’s numbers only account for veterans receiving medical care through the Veterans Health Administration, as opposed to all veterans, a spokesperson said.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) questioned whether the VA could better screen for food insecurity among veterans, for example by asking the questions during Covid-19 vaccine appointments, in addition to annual physicals.
“While we’re grateful for the research and work done by the USDA and VA to understand and alleviate hunger among our veterans, there are gaps and there are inconsistencies in the data and the participation of nutrition assistance programs, and that requires our collective attention,” Levin said.
Congressmen on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity also voiced concerns with understaffing, and urged the VA and USDA to do more to inform veterans on eligibility for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“I can imagine a lot of folks out of pride not necessarily considering themselves to be food insecure,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said.