U.S. Military Family Food Insecurity: How the USO is Trying to Help

By Danielle DeSimone

When your life is dedicated entirely to serving – and sacrificing – on behalf of the United States, the last thing you want to worry about is whether you’ll be able to put food on your family’s table.

Unfortunately, for many service members and military families, this is a problem that they often face.

A 2019 Military Family Advisory study found that 15.3% of U.S. military families struggle to feed themselves and their families. 12.7% of those families are “food insecure,” which is, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life.

This lack of consistent access to food is a challenge for many military members who already sacrifice so much in their service to the nation. Some service members and military spouses are standing in hours-long lines at food banks, collecting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps and sometimes skipping meals to ensure that their families don’t go hungry.

Meanwhile, the USO is continuing to support service members and military families in many critically important ways – whether that’s by literally putting food on the table or by equipping them with tools that will expand their financial security skills so they can provide for themselves.

For Many Military Families, Tight Finances and Constant Moves Mean Military Family Food Insecurity

Photo credit USO Photo

When military families face food insecurity, military children often feel the brunt of the struggle as well.

According to Pentagon records from 2018-2019, 30% of military children qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Many of these children belong to families struggling with salaries that are stretched thin and with high costs of living in many duty stations around the world.

The salaries of enlisted service members between the ranks of E-1 and E-4 range between about $20,172 to $27,684 annually, depending on rank and years of service. For service members with family expenses, that can make finances tight – especially in expensive duty stations such as San Diego, Hawaii or Key West, among others.

In these locations, Military Family Housing on base is often limited, and so service members must find commercial off-base housing using their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). However, these allowances vary depending on zip code and do not always guarantee a high quality of life due to the high cost of living in certain duty stations.

For example, the cost of living (which includes the monthly costs of average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, utilities, internet, food and fuel) in San Diego (the 12th most expensive city in the country) averages about $2,665.86 per month. That’s over $200 more than what an E-4 gets paid monthly in salary. Service members’ housing allowance can also cause them to be disqualified for federal food assistance, making them ineligible to collect SNAP benefits.

When it’s close to payday, this disconnect between cost of living and income can become particularly challenging for lower-enlisted military families that might feel forced to choose between spending their limited income on healthy groceries or other necessities, like diapers. Often, in these days before payday, lower-income military families might turn to eating cheap and often unhealthy foods – or not at all.

To make things even more challenging, many military households are operating off only a single income. This is because, with constant moves and a lack of support networks, many military spouses struggle to maintain a job – or find one.

In fact, according to the Blue Star Families 2019 Military Family Survey, 48% of military spouses state that employment (or lack thereof) is their top issue with military life. Of those military spouses who are employed, 77% of them are underemployed – that is, being paid lower than their corresponding education or work experience, and working jobs that they are overqualified for. Without a steady, second source of income, many military families struggle with food insecurity.

Helping Fill Military Families’ Plates with Food-Centered Events

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members are served a free meal at USO San Antonio.

As a military support nonprofit organization, not a government agency, one thing the USO can do – and has been doing since 1941 – is provide service members and their families with occasional free meals, no questions asked.

Oftentimes, these free meals are based around larger, regular food events that are conscientiously scheduled in the days leading up to payday and are framed as fun, family-oriented events.

These free USO dinners provide the military community with a healthy meal at no cost several times a month, and are occasionally - and strategically - planned in that time period right before payday. In fact, some locations provide multiple meals each week, at which service members and their families gather at participating USO centers and share a home-cooked meal together and alongside other military families. Some USO-provided dinners are served specifically to unaccompanied enlisted service members, to ensure that they are not forgotten. Regardless of who is at the table, the USO is ready to serve them a meal that both fills them up and connects them with their community.

But who is at the table is in fact significant, as USO food events appear to be helpful and popular among a demographic that sometimes struggles with military family food insecurity. In 2019, 48% of military visitors to USO centers come specifically to attend food and beverage events, and of those 2.3 million attendees, 46% of them are in the lower-enlisted ranks of E1-E4.

Other USO events centered around food may not be specifically designed to support struggling military members; however, these events do serve, nonetheless, as an additional source of food and as fun activities that boost morale.

Events such as deployed troops making waffles in Afghanistan or military families sharing a BBQ lunch in South Korea offer service members and military families the chance to connect with each other – and to home – over a delicious meal. These food programs are open to everyone – even those just wanting a fun snack – and are crucial in keeping spirits high, whether they are being served on the front lines in the Middle East or at a USO center in the Midwest.

And while these food programs might seem somewhat simple at first glance, they also serve another purpose for a community that has been trained to – quite literally – pull itself up by its bootstraps.

That is, these food events support service members who may be in need of a meal but are uncomfortable with raising their voice to ask for help.

Supporting the Military with Food and Meals in Times of Crisis

Photo credit DVIDS/Cpl. Karina Lopezmata

U.S. Marines with Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools (MCCSSS) receive a meal from the USO on Camp Johnson, North Carolina, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When disaster strikes, the U.S. military is ready to respond to the call – and the USO is never far behind. As a military support organization, the USO is committed to being there for service members as they respond to, or are affected by, unexpected crises.

From handing out snack care packages to activated National Guard members during hurricanes, to providing meals to local military families impacted by a natural disaster, the USO has a long history of providing meals and snacks to military communities during emergencies.

Most recently, as troops stationed and deployed all around the world have mobilized to assist in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO has joined in supporting their efforts. Whether it was delivering snack bags to medical personnel in Naples, Italy, or organizing a grocery food drive for military families hit particularly hard by the pandemic, the USO has continued to provide snacks and meals to the military community.

In June 2020, USO Naples provided snacks to service members at the clinic on base, as a sign of appreciation for all of their hard work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo credit USO Naples

However, organizing food drives is nothing new for the USO – several centers have established food pantries for military members to utilize at all times of the year, even when there is not a larger community-wide disaster. With the last-reported data in 2013 showing that more than 23,000 active duty service members were a part of the SNAP food stamp program, these food pantries are crucial and have proven their necessity in the past few years.

During the government shutdown of 2018-2019, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the Coast Guard was hit especially hard. As the only branch of the military that falls under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense, most of the 42,000 active-duty Coast Guard members did not draw paychecks during the 35-day shutdown. So, the USO stepped in to help.

“The main things we’ve been asked for are baby formula and diapers,” Lorén Westerfield, the director of USO Houston, said in 2019.

The USO responded by organizing food and grocery drives for Coast Guard members and their families to provide basic family needs, ensuring that they could make it through.

No matter the emergency – whether it be a natural disaster, global pandemic or a missing paycheck – the USO is there at the ready alongside our military, from service members themselves to their military spouses and children.

Supporting Military Spouses Through Employment Networks

Photo credit USO Photo

A military spouse attends a USO MilSpouse Networking event, which is designed to connect military spouses with other job-seeking spouses, as well as potential employers.

Military spouses are often called “the backbone of the U.S. military” because of the crucial role they play in supporting their service member, their family and their communities. However, these “MilSpouses” also face unique challenges that can affect the overall income of their families – and their ability to put food on the table.

Every two to three years, military families must pack up their boxes and furniture and move, once again, to a different city, state or even country. When their service member spouse deploys, often a military spouse must also assume the role of solo parent, holding down the fort at home, all while their loved one is on the front lines.

With constant moves from one location to the next, and without consistent access to childcare or a support networks of family and friends, many military spouses do not have the ability to sustain a stable career and contribute financially to help keep their family’s bellies’ full.

That’s one of the many reasons why the USO helps military spouses find both support systems and employment through programs geared specifically to them.

Through the USO Coffee Connections program, military spouses join together at USO centers to meet other MilSpouses in their area. Not only does this promote friendship and community among military spouses, it also provides them with support networks that they can rely on. Military spouses can also take advantage of USO Military Spouse Networking Events, which connect MilSpouses with potential employers and other job-seeking spouses.

To ensure that these military spouses are on the right track for their career, education and finances, the USO also offers the USO Pathfinder® Transition Program. Designed to support both military spouses throughout their spouse’s time in service, as well as service members themselves as they transition out of the military, this program equips its participants with a customized action plan to success. With this program, military spouses have also been able to earn their Google IT Support Professional Certificate, through which they can obtain a number of IT support positions, which are often remote work – making them ideal for spouses who must move often around the country.

Through these programs and others, the USO aims to support the military community at the root of the problem of financial insecurity and provide military spouses with the tools they need to overcome the challenges of military life and secure a stable career.

Service members and their families make immense sacrifices every day to serve their nation – many of which go unnoticed.

The USO’s mission goes far beyond the famous entertainment shows and care packages we are known for. Our organization is committed to its mission of supporting members of the U.S. military throughout their time in uniform – regardless of whether they’re on the front lines, or at the dinner table.

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