Military families struggle with food insecurity

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It’s a hidden crisis that has existed for years inside one of the most well-funded institutions on the planet. Long before the pandemic, thousands of active military members and their families suffered from food insecurity, quietly slipping through the cracks of both the national social safety net and the internal military support system.

The exact scope of the problem is a topic of debate, due to a lack of formal study. But activists say it has existed for years and primarily impacts junior-level enlisted service members — ranks E1 to E4 in military parlance — with children.

Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks around the country, estimates that up to 160,000 active service members have trouble feeding their families, and 29 percent of troops in the most junior enlisted ranks report facing food insecurity during the previous year.

The problem is exacerbated by an obscure Agriculture Department rule that prevents thousands of needy military families from accessing the SNAP government assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.

Perhaps the best indication of how entrenched the problem has become is that a robust network of military-adjacent charitable organizations like the Armed Services YMCA and Blue Star Families has developed their own infrastructure of food banks near most major domestic bases.

San Diego may be one of the epicenters of the phenomenon, with high housing costs and multiple military bases within driving distance. For Brooklyn Pittman, whose husband Matthew is in the Navy, the move to California from West Virginia earlier this year was a financial shock.

Their savings quickly disappeared and the small income she earns from dog-sitting didn’t come close to covering the shortfall. For a while, the couple considered sleeping in their car on the base grounds until the next paycheck.

Pittman was one of 320 families that took part in a late-October drive-through food distribution run by the local Armed Forces YMCA branch. The organization had been hosting events like this for more than 10 years, but when the pandemic struck, the ASYMCA expanded their operations from six sites to 11 around the country and doubled the frequency of the San Diego area events.