Nearly one out of four active-duty servicemembers experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020, according to a new DoD report.
[See DoD’s Report: Strengthening Food Security in the Force: Strategy and Roadmap]
The report, which looked at survey data from 1.3 million troops, explained that food insecurity is when a person or household cannot afford nutritious food and has to either rely on cheaper, less-nutritious foods or skip meals altogether.
While acknowledging a threat to our military readiness, Defense leaders outlined several steps to reducing this stat in the July report.
DoD has goals to:
- Increase access to healthy food.
- Enhance spouse economic opportunities.
- Review servicemember pay and benefits.
- Reinforce financial resources and awareness.
- Encourage servicemembers and families to seek available resources and services.
- Expand data collection and reporting.
The survey found 24 percent of active-duty troops experienced food insecurity, with junior enlisted troops with less than four years service at highest risk.
Last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III outlined three key priorities for the defense department: defend the Nation, take care of our people, and succeed through teamwork. He acknowledged financial challenges facing some servicemembers and their families and approved temporary increases of basic allowance for housing (BAH) in high-cost areas; extensions for temporary lodging expenses (TLE); and created a Military Leader’s Economic Security Toolkit. Additionally, the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a requirement to establish a Basic Needs Allowance (BNA) to provide additional assistance to families whose gross household income falls below 130% of the federal poverty line. Your grassroots advocacy, as part of MOAA’s 2021 Advocacy in Action campaign, was key to ensuring the inclusion of the BNA in last year NDAA.
[TAKE ACTION: Urge Lawmakers to Support the Military Spouse Hiring Act]
The financial impacts of the pandemic and rising inflation have left military families struggling to make ends meet. While the BNA will help address the needs of some families, DoD must conduct a formal review of pay and benefits to improve retention rates and recruitment efforts. Under consideration are options to increase dislocation allowance; analysis of BAH rates and calculation methods; and a feasibility study on the implementation of dependent care flexible spending accounts for servicemembers. The House version of the FY 2023 NDAA includes a provision to exclude BAH from the BNA eligibility calculation which will help ensure more families in need have access to this vital support.
Financial readiness must be a priority for military leaders. DoD is working on a self-guided financial well-being assessment tool to help servicemembers assess and identify resources to strengthen financial well-being. Additionally, DoD will exercise enhanced oversight of the services’ implementation of mandatory financial education programs for new servicemembers.
Resources and programs exist to support military families; however, there can be a stigma associated with utilizing these tools. DoD plans to work with military-connected organizations to improve outreach and awareness of these resources and programs and will develop a “Resources at the Ready” campaign to encourage help-seeking behavior.
The Military Nutrition Environment Tool (m-NEAT) provides health promotion professionals and commanding officers measure accessibility of healthy food options, and the Go-for-Green Program (G4G) encourages servicemembers to choose nutrient-packed, green-coded options by identifying specific items which fuel optimal physical and mental performance. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) is also increasing access to on-the-go, ready-to-eat, economical, and healthy dietitian-approved food options and is conducting pilot grocery delivery services at eight CONUS locations.
Military families with an unemployed spouse reported higher rates of experiencing food insecurity. On-going efforts to enhance spouse economic opportunities will ideally lead to increased financial stability for military families. The report highlighted DoD efforts on this front including continuing work on interstate licensure compacts, enhanced programs to meet child care demands, and participation in Joining Forces’ goal of making the federal government the “employer of choice” for military dependents.
Finally, DoD has implemented proactive screening to identify those at risk of being food insecure. In fall 2021, the Survey of Well-Being for Young Children was added to intake forms at military treatment facilities. Additionally, the FY2022 NDAA required a study on food deserts and impacts on food security which will be commissioned this year.
The well-being of servicemembers and their families is inextricably linked with force readiness. MOAA will continue to work with DoD, Congress, and fellow MSOs/VSOs to ensure this roadmap is not just a check in the block but a true guide toward improving the quality of life for those willing to sacrifice for the nation.
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