In uniform, married and hungry

Almost a quarter of U.S. military families face food insecurity
News  /  Military

Volunteers with Raytheon Technologies and Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado distributed food last year. (Photo by Bryan Oller)

By Amanda Miller Luciano |

Nearly 30 percent of the people who get food from Pikes Peak United Way’s biweekly food distributions are active-duty military.

“I was actually really surprised by the numbers myself,” says Elizabeth Quevedo, director of community impact for United Way.

“It’s a huge problem,” she says. “Many of the lower-ranking enlisted soldiers simply aren’t making enough.”

According to a 2022 report from the Department of Defense, 24 percent of military families are food insecure, meaning they are consistently unable to afford enough nutritious food to live on.

Quevedo started having staff ask the military question, which was added to a very short list of questions about household size and ZIP code, two years ago.

“I kept seeing all of these military spouses who I knew were military spouses,” she says.

Quevedo had been an Army platoon commander and a military spouse herself.

There are many factors that contribute to military food insecurity, according to those who work with service members in need. Military families move often, which can make it hard for spouses to find and maintain employment.

“I was a military spouse, and I didn’t work for seven years,” says Quevedo. “It made things tight for us, and my husband was an officer.”

Additionally, many of the lowest-ranking enlisted members today have families. That didn’t used to be the case, according to Bob McLaughlin, a veteran and Chief Operating Officer of Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans and active-duty military.

“The demographics have changed,” he says. “We used to joke that if the military wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one. It used to be that 70 percent of the entry-level enlisted were single. Now, it’s the other way around.”

The pay scales for the youngest and newest service members may be enough to sustain a single person, but it’s tough for the families that often depend on the income today.

While the military just had its biggest pay increase in more than 20 years at 4.6 percent across the board, there were no special adjustments for the lowest-ranking troops.

To help address the issue of low-ranking service members with families who are struggling, the DOD launched a new program in January called the Basic Needs Allowance, which will provide additional funding to military families with household incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

“It used to be that 70 percent of the entry-level enlisted were single. Now, it’s the other way around.”
— Bob McLaughlin

“It’s a really timely thing that the military created this program focused on our youngest recruits,” says Nathan Springer, CEO of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado and the former Garrison Commander at Fort Carson Army Base. “I know that Feeding America really worked arm-in-arm with the DOD over the last year and a half, advocating that this needed to happen.”

It’s especially timely because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits that families in need depend upon to offset food costs are about to be reduced dramatically when the additional emergency allotments granted under the COVID public health emergency expire at the end of February.

Springer expects demand at Care and Share and partner food banks to surge dramatically when the additional benefits expire.

Many military members, while they may be experiencing food insecurity, don’t qualify for SNAP benefits. That’s often because the military provides a separate Basic Allowance for Housing, which is higher in more expensive cities like Colorado Springs, to offset the cost of off-base housing. That allowance is calculated in the income for service members, which often puts their incomes out of range for public assistance programs.

Justin Verhulst, a peer navigator at Mt. Carmel, says that makes things tough for entry-level enlisted people, especially if they have families. Verhulst was one of those entry-level guys. He was in combat arms and artillery. During his active-duty years, he lived in the barracks as a single soldier. Most soldiers didn’t want to be in the barracks, he says. It seemed almost like some would marry just to be able to live off base. He had the option to eat at cafeterias or to cook in a tiny kitchen. Finding affordable and manageable home cooking options was challenging even as a single soldier, says Verhulst.

“Back then, I didn’t even know there were things like food pantries,” he says. “It was just easier to go get fast food than it was to ask for help.”

One of the biggest reasons military food insecurity is such an issue is likely the stigma around asking for help. Because those needing assistance don’t go through the chain of command to request it, it has remained an elusive problem for the military.

“They don’t tell you not to ask for help,” Verhulst says. “But you’re trained to be tough. You can live in any conditions, you can sleep anywhere, and you can eat anything.”

The DOD reports that all military installations have food pantries and there are plenty of assistance programs on the bases. But more than 60 percent of the families Mt. Carmel assisted at its 55 food distributions in 2022 were active-duty military or veterans. That indicates that many military service members are going off base for help.

“There’s a bit of anonymity people can get when they come to our food distributions,” Quevedo says of United Way. “They don’t have to answer a lot of questions. They don’t have to worry about how getting help could impact their careers.”

She says that when she was a platoon leader, she had a soldier’s wife approach her and tell her they were in trouble.

“When I was in the Army, you didn’t know about problems until they reached crisis level,” says Quevedo.

She says the wife who came to her for help told her they couldn’t afford formula for their baby or enough food for the rest of the family.

“She said her husband didn’t come to me because he didn’t want me to think less of him as a soldier,” says Quevedo.

But the Army did have resources for the family. Quevedo was able to help them get groceries with an emergency fund, and to help them secure a low-interest loan to stabilize their finances.

Stabilizing finances is another piece of the equation for resolving military food insecurity, McLaughlin says.

“We don’t just want to provide a Band-Aid,” he says. “If the problem is hunger, you provide food. But it can’t stop there.”

Mt. Carmel also provides financial coaching to help active-duty military and veterans make smarter financial decisions, so their money will go further.

Mt. Carmel partners with the local Army and Air Force bases. Verhulst regularly presents at military briefings — where airmen and soldiers are required to attend informational sessions — about the resources the nonprofit provides.

“We are really working in partnership with the military branches,” McLaughlin says.

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