Food Insecurity among U.S. Veterans and Military Families

Food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families is a longtime blind spot for policymakers, but new studies are shedding light on the challenge. What do the data show? What policy solutions are emerging? And what are the long-term risks of food insecurity in the military community?

Q1: What do we know about food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families?

A1: Analyses of food insecurity among U.S. veterans paint a mixed picture. Some studies show lower rates of food insecurity among veterans than the general population. For example, one study of more than 25,000 veterans enrolled in the National Health Interview Survey found that 6.5 percent were food insecure during 2011-2017, far lower than the food insecurity rate among the general population, which hovered between about 12 and 15 percent in the same period. Another study of 2005-2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Current Population Survey – Food Security Supplement found much lower rates of food insecurity (8.4 percent) and very low food security (3.3 percent) among veteran households than in non-veteran households (14.4 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively). However, other studies show higher rates of food insecurity among veterans. In one study of over 6,700 veterans enrolled in the Veterans Aging Cohort Study, 24 percent reported food insecurity between 2002-2008.

Despite these discrepancies, studies consistently find higher rates of food insecurity among certain sub-groups of veterans, including Black, Latino, and other non-white veterans. Some studies have found far greater food insecurity among veterans of recent wars, including one study that found approximately 27 percent of veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced food insecurity in 2011-2012. Among female veterans who visited Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities in 2013 and 2014, nearly 28 percent reported food insecurity.

Fewer data are available on food insecurity among active-duty military members and their families, though more information is emerging each year. According to a study published in May 2021, nearly 33 percent of respondents at a major U.S. Army installation were classified as marginally food insecure in 2019. Among nearly 7,800 military family respondents, 12.5 percent were food insecure in 2019, according to the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) Military Family Support Programming Survey. In the same survey, MFAN observed the detrimental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic: from early 2020 through early 2021, 20 percent of nearly 1,400 respondents reported food insecurity.

Q2: What causes food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families?

A2: As with Americans generally, the main cause of food insecurity among U.S. military families is low household income. While enlisted servicemembers’ salaries are favorable compared to civilian salaries (for individuals of the same education and experience), salaries become inadequate as servicemembers marry and have children. As families grow, spousal employment often is necessary to supplement enlisted members’ salaries and meet families’ needs. In its latest Military Family Lifestyle Survey, Blue Star Families (BSF) observed some degree of food insecurity among all military ranks, but noted that food insecurity “is intensified in families with a spouse who needs or wants to work but is not employed.” Prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate among military spouses was 24 percent; according to BSF’s latest survey, 42 percent of military spouses who had been employed prior to the pandemic reported they stopped working after March 2020, largely due to layoffs.

“For military families seeking federal assistance via the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the method of determining SNAP eligibility is considered inconsistent at best and problematic at worst.”

In addition to spousal unemployment and underemployment, other realities of military life stress families’ budgets, including non-reimbursed costs of moving and the costs of off-base housing when on-base housing is unavailable or insufficient to meet families’ needs. Young families in particular may lack skills and experience necessary to manage family finances. As part of a comprehensive policy proposal to reduce food insecurity among military families, MAZON, a national anti-hunger organization, includes resources to “help military families navigate the stresses, stigmas, and challenges of living on a tight budget.” Overemphasizing the role of improved financial management skills can be controversial, however. According to Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), “[military families are] at a disadvantage, and to say, 'Yeah, well, [a military spouse is] staying home, she should just do better with her budget,' you know, that's really insulting.”

For military families seeking federal assistance via the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the method of determining SNAP eligibility is considered inconsistent at best and problematic at worst. For servicemembers who live on base, the income USDA uses to assess SNAP eligibility does not include the cost of on-base housing, as this cost is simply subtracted from the servicemember’s pay. For servicemembers who live off base and receive a housing allowance—the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)—the income USDA uses to assess SNAP eligibility does include BAH, even though BAH is not considered as income for tax and other purposes. (For civilians, likewise, the value of housing assistance subsidies and other assistance are not considered income in determining SNAP eligibility.) As MAZON explains, “two servicemembers with the same base pay and family composition could have different SNAP eligibility status because of where they live—only the one who lives on base will be eligible for SNAP.” USDA’s method for assessing SNAP eligibility—to count the BAH toward servicemembers’ income—therefore prevents otherwise eligible members from receiving food assistance.

The same risk factors that contribute to food insecurity among the general population—having a low income, being a racial minority, experiencing homelessness, or suffering physical or mental illness—also put veterans at risk. According to one analysis, veterans experiencing serious mental illness have a food insecurity rate 10 times higher than those without serious mental illness, and veterans who reported fair or poor health were about three times as likely to be food insecure than those who reported being in better health. Depression, specifically, was found to increase the risk of food insecurity among young and older veterans alike, according to another study.

Q3: What are some possible solutions to food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families?

A3: Both the veteran and active-duty military communities could benefit from improved data on food insecurity. Indeed, until the VHA implemented a single-item screening tool in 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had no quantitative data on food insecurity among its clients. This dearth of data contributed to the fact that veteran food insecurity had, until recently, “long flown under the policy radar,” according to the Washington Post. As of September 2019, the VHA had identified approximately 74,000 veterans as food insecure. Researchers could improve data on food insecurity among veterans by, for example, also including homeless veterans in their assessments. Some researchers assert that better explanations of survey terms like “food insecurity” could improve the outcomes of surveys like those implemented by BSF. Since that term may not have been understood by all respondents, BSF’s survey may underestimate the extent of food insecurity among respondents. And for U.S. veterans and active-duty military families alike, policymakers would benefit from ready access to more comprehensive data that represents those with different military ranks, dates of service, genders, races, and other characteristics. Ideally, this data would allow comparison of food insecurity in the military community to food insecurity in in the general population and would be reported on a regular basis.

Food insecurity among the veteran community could be reduced by improving access to programs like SNAP. A national partnership between Feeding America food banks and VA medical centers has established mobile food pantries on site, some of which also include services like SNAP application assistance. Scaling up such programs could improve veterans’ access to social safety net programs like SNAP and to emergency provisions from food pantries as needed.

Active-duty servicemembers and their families would benefit from participating in SNAP when such assistance is necessary to meet families’ food and nutrition needs. To facilitate SNAP enrollment, USDA, working with Congress, could rationalize the treatment of housing income among enlisted members who live on base and those living off base and exempt BAH from servicemembers’ income. The Department of Defense (DoD) itself asserts that USDA’s treatment of BAH “may lead to unequal SNAP eligibility for servicemembers who are otherwise similar in terms of paygrade, geographic location, and number of household members.”

Even when veterans or active-duty military families are eligible for SNAP, the culture of the military community itself may inhibit some from availing themselves of food assistance. Among in-need veterans, stigma dissuades many from applying for government assistance or lining up at food pantries, representing “a pride thing . . . a mentality that needs to change,” according to Feed our Vets. Among military families, the same resilience that bolsters them through hardships may also prevent them from taking advantage of federal benefits. Instead of seeking federal benefits, enlisted members express “a sense that they need to be able to ‘carry it all’ and take care of their families, or that the need is greater for other members,” according to MFAN.

“Reducing food insecurity among servicemembers may have repercussions for the long-term health of the military.”

Procedural changes to facilitate SNAP enrollment, and other efforts to destigmatize usage of the program’s benefits, could ultimately increase participation in this safety net program in the military community, particularly among active-duty families. According to the latest DoD assessment, between 0.08 and 0.42 percent of the 1.1 million servicemembers stationed in the United States are enrolled in SNAP at any time, translating to between 880 and 4,620 members. Considering that at one major Army installation, 33 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing food insecurity, the number of servicemembers eligible for SNAP but not enrolled in the program could be far greater than DoD’s estimates. The Killeen Food Care Center outside Fort Hood, Texas distributed 75 pounds of food to each of 650 military families—a total of 50,000 pounds of food—on one day in May 2021 alone.

Beyond supplementing servicemembers’ income via SNAP benefits, others have proposed supplementing incomes through other means. MAZON proposes a “Military Family Basic Needs Allowance” for servicemembers earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, translating to an additional $400 per month per eligible servicemember, on average. While the allowance was proposed in the last two iterations of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress failed to include it in either 2019 or 2020. In recent years, Congress has considered other legislative solutions to food insecurity among veterans and military families, with mixed results. In 2018, members introduced the Military Hunger Prevention Act, which also would have required DoD to pay a basic needs allowance to low-income members of the armed forces, and the Military Dependents School Eligibility Act to authorize DoD to work with states to certify children of active-duty service members for school meal programs. Both bills died without receiving votes. However, the Supporting At-Risk Veterans in an Emergency (SAVE) Act was signed into law on January 15, 2021, allowing the VA to give veterans access to food and other necessities during a public health emergency. In the future, Congress could consider comprehensive, stand-alone legislation to address the many causes of food insecurity among veterans and active-duty military families at once.

Q4: What are the long-term risks of food insecurity among U.S. veterans and military families?

A4: First, the specter of food insecurity distracts active-duty members from their immediate tasks. According to MAZON, “Ensuring that servicemembers can provide the basic needs for their family members eliminates unnecessary stress and anxiety and contributes to optimal mission readiness.” Additionally, reducing food insecurity among servicemembers may have repercussions for the long-term health of the military. The children of current recruits are more likely to enlist in the military as adults, so reducing food insecurity among military families can improve physical and cognitive health and reduce obesity and overweight among future recruits. (Today, among adults aged 18-24, 19 percent do not meet standards for accession to the U.S. military because of obesity. Perhaps counterintuitively, food insecurity greatly increases the risk of obesity in the United States and elsewhere.) Improving food security can also increase retention rates: researchers recently found that in a large sample of those serving in the Army, food insecurity was associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, which were in turn associated with intentions to leave the Army. Furthermore, any effort to improve the livelihood of veterans, including their food security, could also improve recruitment rates into the armed services, giving potential servicemembers a positive view of life post-service. Finally, given the overrepresentation of persons of color and concentration of food insecurity among junior enlisted ranks, addressing food insecurity in this segment of the military could, in the long term, help retain servicemembers of color and increase diversity in military leadership.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This commentary is made possible by support from the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program