Pandemic added to food insecurity among military families
On a recent spring day at Fort Sam Houston, a line of idling cars with their trunks opened, waiting for volunteers to unload 11,000 pounds of food into a nearby parking lot. Some of the drivers were soldiers who had just left work, while others were spouses or relatives of soldiers.
As they walked forward to collect their rations, most barely cracked their windows – volunteers say this is common because people don’t want to be seen.
“After they register, we assess where they are,” said Dr Patricia Ruiz, director of the Vogel Resiliency Center, which organizes these monthly food distributions in partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank.
“Sometimes ‘things don’t go so well’, and there are all these kids screaming behind their backs. Some will just say, you know, “It’s been a really tough month.” Some will tell these stories, like “We had four members of our family. Now it’s up to 10. ”Because they are second generation families. Everyone has been hit so hard by the pandemic.
One of the volunteers distributing food was the Army Sgt. Rebecca Hummer, a respiratory therapist who is still recovering from a difficult period caused by the pandemic. Although she earns just over $ 60,000 a year – including housing and food allowances – Hummer still felt the effects when her husband Dale lost his job as a security guard in November.
“He was looking to get hired,” she said. “But because of the pandemic, there were layoffs, so he couldn’t find work immediately. We were faced with financial difficulties. “
On top of that, the couple had two huge unforeseen expenses. Their house was flooded after a heavy rain, causing thousands of dollars in damage, and their dog was diagnosed with cancer. The bills started to pile up.
“It was tough,” Hummer said. “My husband and I are saving money. But we had to cut back on what we normally get at the grocery store, in terms of the choice of boxed items and a lot less fresh produce. We were picking up things that were perhaps less nutritious to get by. But that’s what we did. And I’m not proud to say it, but I skipped meals.
Hummer was reluctant to tell others about the hardships she was facing – and postponed seeking food aid for as long as possible.
“In the military, we say that perception is reality,” she said. “So if you ask for help, there might be this perception that you are weak. For me, it was a combination of the need to be considered competent – and then it’s also that I’m just a very private person in general.
The couple are now recovering financially, but have had to rely on food assistance to get by. They are not alone. Over the past year, COVID-19 has exacerbated unique challenges for military families, such as high spousal unemployment rates. According to a investigation from military support organization Blue Star Families, more than 40% of working military spouses reported losing their jobs during the height of the pandemic. Others had to reduce their working hours, usually to take care of children who were at home and in virtual school.
Many still haven’t returned to full-time work.
“We have seen a lot more job losses among military spouses, because child care has become an issue,” said Christine Abraham, director of culinary wellness at the resilience center.
Poorly enlisted families have been particularly affected by food insecurity during the pandemic, their risk increasing if they have multiple dependents or a sick family member. Staff at the Vogel Resilience Center regularly respond to requests from military families looking for ways to split every dollar of their income and get meals on the table.
“For the enlisted soldiers – to keep them from food insecurity – that second income is what made the big difference,” Abraham added.
COVID-19 has also disrupted many services that normally help military families transition from place to place. Some had to incur costs if their relocation plans were affected by the pandemic. There were also delays in processing new housing and payroll formalities, among other things.
In 2015, research showed that one in seven enlisted families at Joint Base San Antonio were food insecure. Abraham estimates he is now closer to three out of seven.
It is difficult to assess how difficult it is for current members of the service to put food on the table. Much of the reporting from food banks and pantries is anecdotal, as these agencies typically do not ask questions about military status.
“These agencies are really trying to protect the anonymity and dignity of those they serve,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON, A Jewish Response to Hunger.
Nonetheless, MAZON has heard testimony from across the country that more military families are using emergency food aid because of COVID-19. (The organization published a report in April, detailing the problem and its contributing factors.) Census Bureau surveys also showed increased rates of spousal unemployment and economic hardship.
“I’m not sure we have an exact statistic on food insecurity, but we know it’s on the increase,” Protas added.
The San Antonio Food Bank estimates that 37% of all households it served during the pandemic have a current or former military. This is up from 15% before the coronavirus pandemic. In total, around 45,000 people with military ties have faced food insecurity since spring 2020.
The Defense Ministry is aware of figures from outside groups that show food insecurity has increased during the pandemic, but it does not have reliable figures.
“The Department is concerned about reports that military families may increasingly rely on food banks and pantries to put food on the table,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said. , in an email. “While official DoD survey data shows that food bank dependence among military families is relatively low, we also understand that this may not capture the full effect of COVID-19 on the issue. . “
She added that the ministry plans to collect food insecure-specific data through surveys of active duty spouses.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.