Food Insecurity Touches Hundreds of Military Households — Voice of San Diego

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An Armed Services YMCA San Diego volunteer prepares to deliver a box of groceries to a vehicle at a grocery delivery in Murphy Canyon on October 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego is home to the largest concentration of military personnel in California. But despite belonging to an institution with a huge budget and living in an agriculturally rich region, more and more research suggests that soldiers and their loved ones here suffer from food insecurity.

It is considered an open secret among military families, but they are not always willing to speak about it publicly.

Many San Diegan people struggle with food insecurity, but service members face several barriers that the general population does not. For example, they are excluded from the same benefits that others receive and the nature of their work causes them to move often, making it more difficult for their spouses to find a job to support their household.

There doesn’t appear to have been an official study on the issue, but a network of nonprofits and academics has grown louder as they urge Congress to do more. An Associated Press report released last month also helped raise local awareness of the issue.

“Veterans are a proud group,” said Mark Walker, an Air Force veteran who now works for the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, at a recent hearing. “Therefore it is very difficult for us to ask for help.”

Colleen Heflin, a professor of public and international affairs at Syracuse University, estimates that about one in eight military families across the country meets the federal definition of food insecurity, which means they do not have access to enough food necessary for a healthy lifestyle is.

Research cited from June 2020 in an army installation found that every third soldier were only slightly nutritionally insecure at the time. In her testimony to the House Rules Committee in May, she also cited a report by the Military Family Advisory Network which stated: one of five military families were food insecure last winter.

Armed Services YMCA San DiegoAn Armed Services YMCA San Diego volunteer prepares grocery bags for donation to military families at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on October 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The reasons are different. However, proponents say one of the main causes of food insecurity in the armed forces is compensation – especially among young soldiers – that has not kept up with the cost of living. A study by the nonprofit group Mazon concluded that Military money is not structured to support a whole family.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a two-parent household with two children must earn more than $ 97,000 a year to live in San Diego County. But a recruited service agent less than two years old earns an annual salary of between $ 23,310 and $ 26,500, according to Heflin.

Housing and childcare also put these families under pressure. The high cost of housing and childcare affects many layers of society, but military service personnel face special circumstances.

Active service members of the military receive a basic housing allowance. The amount depends on geographic location, salary grade, and dependency status. Housing benefits are not considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service, but they are considered income when military families apply for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – also known in California as CalFresh – which means many families are not eligible for food stamps, said Heflin.

Food insecurity isn’t as visible as homelessness, for example, and the people who experience it may not know, even if parents skip meals so their children can eat, said Erin Hogeboom, senior director at San Diego for Every Child, a coalition dedicated to ending life in child poverty.

“When you are in doubt or not sure where your next meal is coming from, it is absolutely a very obvious food insecurity experience,” she said.

Where service members live in San Diego also affects their access to food. Several military housing developments are located in or near areas considered food deserts or food swamps, often defined as places lacking healthy alternatives. There may be a high concentration of restaurants in these areas, but usually those that offer fast food.

Hogeboom said families forced to buy cheaper and less nutritious options because they lack the resources to buy healthy food are also unsafe. For example, a Whole Foods could open in the middle of a food desert and still be inaccessible to the neighboring community because of the price, she said.

Armed Services YMCA San DiegoAn Armed Services YMCA San Diego volunteer prepares to deliver bags of groceries to a vehicle at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on October 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Many military families rely on bi-weekly food distributions in the area, such as the Armed Forces YMCA. Before the pandemic, the organization looked after around 220 families at each location, said Tim Nye, the executive director. He said they had moved to drive-through distributions and saw families grow by 400 percent as the pandemic began.

Nye said the subject was much more complex than handing out more food. He said a root cause analysis was needed that would look into things like childcare, financial literacy, education and human resource development.

“Hunger doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter your age, your background, where you come from, none of that. “

Mila Shrestra, a Paradise Hills resident and military wife of a retired Marine veteran, participates with her grandson in the monthly distribution at Murphy Canyon. She babysits him while the parents work.

Shrestra said the food they receive while it is being distributed makes a great contribution to the family’s daily diet. She said she can often use the food that is distributed to prepare full meals, and she will find items at military bases that are not available in grocery stores.

“I plan and come here every month,” said Shrestra. “It helps a lot.”

Kristen Simons is a Colorado native, a military woman and a mother of three. Her husband is in the Navy and currently on duty. They met in middle school and started dating in high school. She also takes part in the distribution of food.

“It’s essential to our food budget,” said Simons. “I would say that over half of our food comes from these distributions.”

She said the cost of living in San Diego was “astronomical” and “absolutely insane”. The money her family saved on groceries went to a new engine for their car, she said. Simons stays at home with her children.

“I don’t think I could actually have a job that would pay for childcare for the three children,” she said. “I wouldn’t even consider that as an option.”

Military spouses also face unique employment barriers.

“Frequent home moves associated with relocations limit the ability of spouses to gain time for a particular employer, which depresses wages,” said Professor Heflin. “Relocation is a particular problem for spouses who work in professions that require certification due to different government requirements.”

Spouses have to cope with their family members working long hours on active duty or on duty, Heflin said. As a result, spouse employment is lower in active duty families than civilian families, and when spouses work they tend to work fewer hours and earn lower wages, she said.

Mazon’s study also found that military families often move away from community and family support networks every two to three years, making access to childcare – which can cost thousands of dollars a month – difficult.

Danny Romero, program director of SAY San Diego and the San Diego Military Family Collaborative, said military spouses often have to make choices about whether to advance their careers or stay home with the kids.

Food insecurity can be a source of shame and social stigma, and this is why the food distributions at the Armed Forces YMCA are festive. The organizers play happy music and volunteers greet everyone with a smile. The group believes in dignified distribution to make the environment more welcoming.

Armed Services YMCA San DiegoAn Armed Services YMCA San Diego volunteer fills a vehicle with groceries at a grocery distribution in Murphy Canyon on October 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“I saw people’s bodies shake from head to toe because it was humiliating,” said Nye. “Nobody wakes up on a Thursday morning and says, ‘I can’t wait to get into a food line.’ It’s not the excitement of the day. “

Self-employment is deeply ingrained in military culture, leading soldiers to view food stamps as handouts, said Andy Kopp, a Navy veteran and a contributor to the Truman National Security Project, a leadership development group. He said there was an element of unwarranted shame related to food insecurity, as if admitting a problem equated to personal failure.

“If you have a choice of skipping a meal and making sure the power is on, make sure the power is on or pay your rent and so on,” he said.

Kopp attributes much of the problem to rising housing costs and said it was the main cause of poverty in California.

Over the past several years, about 50 percent of military families planned to stay in or around San Diego, while that number is now around 15 percent, according to surveys, Romero said.

Proponents say government intervention is necessary because they cannot be solely responsible for the long-term upkeep of the military community.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from San Diego, is a co-sponsor of the Military Child Care Expansion Act and the Military Hunger Prevention Act. Both are intended to reduce costs for military families and increase allowances.

“The defense budget cannot be limited to weapons systems and equipment – we should start prioritizing personnel, especially given how much we ask of them,” she said in a statement.

Not only is this the right thing to do, she added, but it is also important to retaining and recruiting talented people, increasing morale, and maintaining the nation’s readiness.

“Long waiting lists and inferior childcare facilities have put additional financial pressure on families who often lack resources,” she said. “It is unacceptable that so many military families are faced with so many challenges that we ourselves have to solve.”

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