Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

Since the start of the Recession, the dollar amount of food stamps used at military commissaries, special stores that can be used by active-duty, retired, and some veterans of the armed forces has quadrupled, hitting $103 million last year. Food banks around the country have also reported a rise in the number of military families they serve, numbers that swelled during the Recession and haven’t, or have barely, abated.

About 2,000 food-stamp recipients listed their occupations as active-duty military in 2012, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program. It’s a tiny fraction of the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps on an average month. The military also has its own program designed to provide families with additional money for food so that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Uptake is low—only 427 families used it. Those who work on anti-hunger issues worry that there are more complicated reasons that may obscure the whole, hidden problem. No one knows how big the problem is, but they’re concerned it’s growing.

Military pay for enlisted members starts at $1,285 a month, which works out to a little more than $15,000 a year. Pay shoots up the longer an enlisted man or woman stays in, is promoted, and is given money to support any children they may have, up to two, but the average enlisted member with less than four years of experience makes about $21,000 a year. (The military also provides other forms of compensation and says an army private with less than two years earns about $41,749 when all is figured in.) Most people agree that’s enough for one young person without children. Once married, however, times get harder. Thirty percent of military spouses between the age of 18 and 24 are unemployed, in part because they’ve likely relocated to be with their spouses and are far from family and support networks. Couples with more than two children living only on an enlisted member’s salary of that amount are well below the poverty line. That doesn’t account for the other financial problems they may face, like unpaid student loans that follow them into the military, credit card debt, or a history of family poverty: Ten percent of those who enlist come from families in the bottom quintile of incomes. “Some of them entered the military to improve their financial situation,” says Mike Ivers, head of a food bank in Yuma, Arizona, near two military installations. “And then something always happens that quickly and easily.”

Like many modestly paid, working Americans, other military families are only slightly above the poverty line and may still struggle to buy food. It’s a larger problem among the working poor: benefits fade out as workers move up the income ladder, but disappear completely before families make enough to be self-sufficient. The 2008 farm bill, the legislation that authorizes the food-stamp program, allowed states to ease some of the restrictions on how people qualify to try to address this need—family gross incomes could go above the usual income threshold as long as necessary expenses on housing and childcare caused them to fall below it. These new rules might account for some of the growth in food stamp use, both overall and among the military, during the recession. Most experts, however, attribute the rise to that fact that more families became poor, and poor families became poorer, and there’s no reason to believe the increased reliance on them at military commissaries is any different.

The use of food stamps may only hint at part of the issue, anyway. The tax-free allowance members receive for off-base housing counts as income in the qualification tests for food stamps. It’s different treatment from what the civilian population receives: housing assistance like the Section 8 program isn’t counted as income for food-stamp purposes. The added income might push some families who would otherwise qualify above the income threshold, which means they struggle to put food on the table but can’t get help. “This is different from the way that civilians would be treated,” says Josh Protas, director of government affairs for Mazon, a Jewish-faith-based anti-hunger organization. “There’s this extra barrier for active-duty military.”  

Beryl Durazo was working as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Yuma food bank when she married an active-duty Marine in July 2012. Durazo made a small living stipend and is a type 1 diabetic requiring expensive medication, and she and her husband were struggling to afford food. They ate far too many Ramen noodles. “For about three or four months, that was one of the basic meals,” she says. “That’s not healthy at all, but, unfortunately, if that’s what you can afford that’s what it comes down to.” Durazo started looking for assistance. She didn’t want to rely on the food bank because she worked there, and wanted a more sustainable way to afford food until her time with VISTA ended and she could get a full-time job. With their housing allowance, she and her husband made too much money to qualify for food stamps. She looked into the military’s special program designed to help families afford food, but learned that her husband would have to apply through his chain of command. He didn’t want to do it. Durazo talked to other military families, and found that few knew about this special program and, when they learned about it, were reluctant to apply through their bosses. “I know there’s a lot more out there that need help than actually do come to ask for help,” she says.

There’s evidence for that in the high numbers of families seeking assistance from food banks and pantries, emergency services that provide boxes of kitchen staples to families every few weeks and offer privacy to their clients. Operation Homefront, an organization that provides financial assistance to military members and their families, saw the number of clients they serve peak during the recession, especially for food assistance. The need has dropped in the past two years but remains triple what it was before the recession, a spokesman said. The organization helped about 30,000 families in 2013 with emergency food—in 2011, the number was 60,000 families. That number includes recent veterans, which is a different but related problem. Troop levels have been reduced by about 100,000 soldiers in the past year, and those men and women are coming home at a time of high unemployment. They often return to the areas they grew up in or were last stationed in, and are among the populations these food banks serve. The military is basically a large employer going through layoffs, and though there are initiatives designed to encourage employers to hire them, there are few jobs in the lagging economy. “While everybody is glad to see more and more of our service members coming home, in many cases those service members were counting on combat pay that isn’t there any more,” says Aaron Taylor, the spokesman for Operation Homefront. “That has a financial impact.”

Food banks around the country near military installations all say the need among the military population, like the overall population, remains high. Brenda Swain, who runs a food bank in Falmouth, Massachusetts, estimates that active-duty military families make up about seven percent of her clientele, and it rises to ten percent when she counts families that include veterans. Karen Joyner, who runs a food bank in Virginia, only recently started to collect data, but found that the her network was distributing more than 100,000 pounds of food a month to active-duty military personnel. Ivers, the head of the food bank where Durazo works—they later hired her as an employee—says he serves between 150 and 200 military families a year, and has served more than 6,000 veterans in the past two years. The numbers of military families coming to his food bank for emergency food spiked during the government shutdown last October. “You have a lot of entry-level marines and army individuals, and even the border patrol, wind up coming to the food bank because they live paycheck to paycheck,” he says.

The military says it doesn’t have a problem with hunger among its active-duty population, saying members are well-compensated compared to the private sector and fed three meals a day in the barracks. Members of a military are active volunteers at local food banks. They raise money or run a small food drive for needy families within their ranks, who may be subtly discouraged from seeking help outside the military. “We always say it’s a dirty little secret,” Joyner says. “The military has a pride relating to what they do,” she says. “They’re supposed to be taking care of others in their country but if you have to go and ask for emergency food assistance, they think that means that you’re not even capable of taking care of yourself or your family.”

In their need and in their shame, members of the military aren’t that different from the population as a whole. During the recession, food-stamp enrollment more than doubled, to 47 million in an average month, but the numbers of families who reported they didn’t have consistent access to nutritious meals was higher, about 50 million. Despite the ever-vigilant watch for food-stamp fraud, a much bigger problem is that there’s a gap between those who need help and those who receive it. If those who are actively serving, or have just finished serving the country, are falling through it, what does that augur for the rest of the population? “I think it’s not a point of pride that members of our military might be eligible for SNAP so it’s a delicate situation to discuss,” Protas says. “There’s some shame about this.”