Speaking Up: Raising Awareness About Food Insecurity Affecting Military Families Today
It’s hard to imagine, but some military families worry about putting food on the table. In addition to facing deployments, time away from family and friends, and moving every few years, military families are struggling financially.. As a new military spouse, Rachel expected to face these typical challenges. She never expected to feel unsure of how they’d pay their bills or put food on the table. But by the middle of 2020, that’s exactly what Rachel’s family was facing.
“I have always worked full time,” Rachel shared. “My husband and I had been married for almost four years before we decided to try for a baby. We very deliberately wanted to be in a solid place financially before starting a family, so we waited a few years. But it was something we both wanted very much, so it was exciting to feel like we were ready. It made things all the more devastating when I lost my job due to COVID-19. At the time, I was four months pregnant with our first child. We had tried so hard to do everything right. So when all this happened, it felt life-changing as we had worked so hard to get here and, within one day, it was all gone. Going from two incomes to one, cutting our income in half, took a big toll financially. Very quickly, it became very difficult to pay our bills. Everything was so much more stressful and scary being pregnant. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to afford the nutritious food my baby needed to grow or what we would do after our son was born. As a military spouse, and especially a pregnant military spouse, it’s not always easy to go out and find a new position. We aren’t always viewed as a viable employee even if we are a perfect fit just because we might move in a few years. I didn’t know what we were going to do and that was terrifying.”
While heartbreaking, Rachel’s experience is not unique for military families, especially those that are enlisted. According to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey (MFLS), 14% of enlisted active-duty families report facing food insecurity. A major cause of those troubling struggles? Spouse employment. In response to the 2020 MFLS, enlisted families reporting food insecurity jumps to 20% when you look specifically at families whose spouses are not employed but report they need and want to work, compared to 10% when looking at those who are employed full or part time.
As time went on and bills mounted, Rachel needed help. She discovered that the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) had a food pantry set up on post. While she was hesitant to reach out, reluctantly, she did. “When I started going to the food pantry, no one in my family knew,” Rachel said. “I felt so much shame and embarrassment. I didn’t even like the volunteers working there knowing I was struggling even though I was a stranger to them. But those strangers and the help I received there kept food on our table and kept my family going. Living so far from family is so hard, especially while dealing with something like this. When I started going to the ASYMCA and to the food pantry, I ended up finding a surrogate family, a family that, in some ways, I needed more than the food. Having someone in your corner helping you along mentally and encouraging you each step of your journey sometimes means more than filling your cereal bowl.”
Having access to resources and support is so important. At the end of the day, it’s more than nourishment on the table; it’s the overall well-being of our service members and their families. More than half of active-duty family respondents to the 2020 MFLS report that COVID-19 had made their own mental health (59%) worse or much worse. Without a willingness to reach out for help and accept support during a difficult time in her life, Rachel’s fears and worries could have quickly spiraled into paralyzing depression, putting both her and her child’s futures at risk.
While many don’t, Rachel did ask for help. And today, she’s in a much better place because of it, even finding fully remote work to replace her lost position. And now she wants to pay it forward. “Once I was cleared after giving birth, I started volunteering at the ASYMCA food pantry each week to show my gratitude for everything they did for our family,” Rachel said. “When the opportunity was given to me to share my story, I set aside any feelings of embarrassment and shame. If sharing my story means that other families can learn and grow, if it means even one family reaches out for assistance, then I feel like it’s worth it. It is important that other families and spouses know that there are people out there just like them who have been going through tough times. That there are resources that can help. The ASYMCA has literally become part of our military family. In my case, they helped more than providing food to our family, they provided someone who was on my side rooting for me and at that point in my life, it was what I desperately needed.”
Blue Star Families is on a mission to find solutions to those underlying causes of food insecurity. For starters, we’ve hired dedicated Food Insecurity DEPLOY Fellow Kelley Klor, and she’s actively connecting with families like Rachel’s to raise awareness for the challenges military families face financially. Not to mention, to create powerful partnerships to ensure all families have access to resources and food when they need it.
Additionally, we’re working on policy changes to address access to resources and helping military spouses find employment through the Blue Star Careers Program. In a historic partnership with USAA, PenFed, and Navy Federal Credit Union, we’ve launched a new Military Spouse Employment Initiative. This groundbreaking work will include a three-year study of spouse un- and underemployment and the creation of a road map of best practices for businesses, so they can see the incredible potential in the military spouse labor pool.
Lastly, if you’re a military family in need, please reach out for support. Find the latest resources related to food insecurity on our website.
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