Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) sort through donated non-perishable food items during a community service project at the Bremerton Food Line food bank in Bremerton, Wash, in 2013. (MC2 Lauren Howes / Navy)
The Pentagon’s personnel chief is taking exception to statistics from a recent study that concluded 25 percent of military households use food banks.
“I dispute that number ... I think that’s totally incorrect,” Jessica Wright, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at an Aug. 18 meeting of the DoD Military Family Readiness Council.
That said, she added, “I know there are members of our force who go to food banks and that’s OK if they need to do that.”
The nonprofit Feeding America stated that one out of four households with a current military member is being served by the group’s network of 200 food banks spread across all 50 states. The group concluded that 620,000 “military households” are getting food assistance.
But it is unclear how that military percentage compares to the general population; the report states that one in seven people in the U.S. uses food banks, but counting individuals is much different than counting households.
Moreover, the military figure includes not only active-duty households, but also those of National Guard and Reserve members, whose financial circumstances offer differ significantly from active-duty families and may be adversely or positively affected by being called to full-time active duty.
In addition, 15 percent of the clients surveyed by Feeding America are households of veterans who have no current links to the military.
In 2013, the organization, which provides food to about 15.5 million households each year, surveyed about 60,000 client households of its food banks and found that about 4 percent had at least one person currently serving in the military.
The group multiplied 15.5 million by 4 percent to reach the conclusion that it serves 620,000 current military households. Then they divided that number by the 2.5 million active-duty and Reserve component service members reported by DoD in 2012 to determine that 25 percent of all military households seek help from food banks.
Defense officials contend that food bank clients have very different demographic characteristics from the military population with regards to age, race, gender and education. For example, 51 percent of those surveyed by Feeding America were over age 50. So without making statistical adjustments to match the survey sample with the military population, it is impossible to accurately calculate an estimated percentage of military households using food banks, officials said.
Feeding America spokeswoman Maura Daly acknowledged that research on military families who need food assistance “is in its infancy. We look forward to working with the Department of Defense on further research.”
This was Feeding America’s sixth survey, but the first to ask questions about whether anyone in the household had served or is currently serving in the military. Those questions were included because of anecdotal feedback from food banks that they were seeing a “significant increase” in the number of active-duty families seeking food assistance, Daly said.
The food banks also said they’ve been approached by outside organizations that serve other needs of military families, with requests for partnerships to help provide food, Daly said.
“A lot of military [recruits] are coming from low-income families, and when they enter the military, they may not have a savings cushion,” she said.
Other factors include transfers to locations with a higher cost of living, and delay in or lack of a spouse’ employment at the new location.
Feeding America’s national office research team and local food banks conducted the research in partnership with teams at Westat and the Urban Institute. The research was peer-reviewed, Daly said.
“It’s really important to remember that one in seven people are turning to Feeding America,” Daly said. “Currently serving military and veterans are only one subset of the community. The whole study indicates that while the economy is improving, it’s not improving for low-income families.”
Wright said she will ask her personnel and readiness directorate’s senior enlisted adviser to put together a “how-to” fact sheet for service members to apply for the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, designed to provide supplemental income for families who need it. At the moment, 668 service members receive it -- fulltime active-duty members and activated guardsmen and reservists are receiving it, she said, noting that others may qualify for it but have not applied.
“We’ll try to get that to the force to say if you’re eligible and if you want to apply, this is available to you,” she said.
Service members with large families and qualifying incomes may be eligible for monthly entitlements through the supplemental allowance program; more information is available at www.dmdc.osd.mil/fssa/.
“We don’t ever want a family to go either hungry or in need,” Wright said. “Our job is to take care of them.”
The National Military Family Association contends that the number of military families living on the financial edge is higher than it should be.
“I can’t speak to Feeding America’s research because we were not a part of it, but I do know where the financial hardships come from: unemployment or underemployment of military spouses, frequent moves, lower income after deployments and youth and inexperience with financial matters,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the association, in a statement from the organization in response to the study’s results.
Raezer said more military families are on the edge because of military downsizing and other issues, such as the cap placed on the last military pay raise that kept the raise slightly below the rise in inflation. And some service members are reluctant to seek help from their commands partly because they’re embarrassed, she said.
“With so much uncertainty over downsizing, they don’t want to do anything to draw attention to themselves,” Raezer said.
Unlike federal programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), those who go to a food bank aren’t required to prove eligibility, Wright said. Anyone can go to food banks, the majority of which are operated by faith-based organizations.
According to Feeding America’s findings, in the food bank client households surveyed, 5.8 percent of “military families” included at least one senior citizen; 2.3 percent had at least one child; and 3.6 percent included neither senior citizens nor children.