DoD Tackles Food Insecurity Among Military Families

DoD Tackles Food Insecurity Among Military Families

Soldiers help at local food bank
Photo by: Air National Guard/Master Sgt. John Hughel

Active-duty and National Guard families experience food insecurity at a rate two times higher than that of all U.S. households, experts said, marking a growing challenge for military leaders.

In addition, a recent study suggests that one in three soldiers experiences food insecurity and may use resources such as food banks to supplement meals for themselves and their families, according to an Army press release.

The issue, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, was the topic of discussion July 27 during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During the event, experts said more data is needed to fully understand the causes and consequences of food insecurity in the military.

For service members, food insecurity is linked to financial difficulties; the cost of housing, child care and education; frequent moves and barriers to accessing food and nutrition benefits, said Caitlin Welsh, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Food Security Program. “Wherever food insecurity exists around the world, in the United States and in the military, it does not exist in a vacuum,” Welsh added.

“Military families are strong, resilient and very proud, but they cannot resolve all of their own challenges,” Margaret Harrel, chief program officer for the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Food insecurity initially was not considered a problem in DoD due to seemingly low numbers of troops who used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, said Patty Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy.

“When I got to the department, I started talking about food insecurity with my colleagues, and I really did get a look that said to me, ‘We don't think we have a problem,’ ” said Barron, an Army spouse and former family readiness director for the Association of the U.S. Army. 

Since then, DoD has undergone a major shift, Barron said. “The department, of course, is much more aware of the issue now, and it's definitely one of [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin's very high priorities,” she said. “He wants to make sure that we're addressing this and getting to it as quickly as we can.”

DoD is currently developing a food insecurity assessment tool because proper nutrition is key to readiness, Barron said, and it all comes down to what service members and their families deserve.  

“We ask an awful lot of our families, especially our children who have to move from place to place,” she said. “Shouldn't we provide them with the very best care that we can? A military family should not have any challenges with food. That formula just does not work.”

In addition to taking care of service members, Barron said reducing food insecurity is key to readiness.

“And if you're not at your best, if you're worried that your family isn't getting enough to eat, or if you're worried that your family isn't getting the right types of things to eat, that can really impact the presence of a service member trying to do their job in their mission,” she said.

Within the next year, Barron said, she hopes to continue to bring DoD tools to address food insecurity to commanders and service providers on the ground.

“This is such a personal issue, something that families keep to themselves, at close hold, if you will,” Barron said. “What I would like to see a year from now, is that some of the tools that we are creating within the department are working towards bringing this issue out in the open a bit more.”