Melissa Harris-Perry: The United States spent 725 billion on national defense in fiscal year 2020. That's a number that far outpaces defense spending by other Western nations in total dollars and in percent of the national budget. Even while US taxpayers were making it rain on the Department of Defense, military families are going hungry. According to the Military Family Advisory Network, one in eight military families faces some form of food insecurity. The network also indicates that nearly a quarter of military families with school-aged children report that their children receive free or reduced meals at school.
Roteshia Adams: As a soldier, you don't expect for your family to have to go hungry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Roteshia Adams is a veteran and a current military spouse. She serves as community outreach chairperson with the Fort Hood Spouses Club. When I spoke with Roteshia, she told me about how the constant and often unexpected moves associated with military life generate significant expenses that can create or worsen food insecurity for families.
Roteshia Adams: PSC move is a permanent change of station. That's when the soldiers go to a new duty station for an assignment. During those moves families, they have to pay for food on the way, they have to pay for hotels on the way. Sometimes a lot of the spouses or the service members don't know how to get reimbursed for those costs of moving and providing food to their families. Sometimes we move from the west coast to the east coast, it's like a week's trip to get our families there. For that week we're footing the bill for food, housing, things of that nature. It takes a toll on the income.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She also pointed the ways that a military code of service and self-reliance can sometimes deter those in need from asking for help.
Roteshia Adams: There may be families who are still going hungry but are too prideful to go and get that help or to ask for help.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I also spoke about food insecurity in the military with Shannon Razsadin, the President of Military Family Advisory Network.
Shannon Razsadin: Food insecurity is essentially when you are worried or concerned about having enough to make ends meet related to food. As an organization when we've been looking at food insecurity among military families, we've used the USDA's six items short-form food security scale to help us not only figure out if families are food insecure but also where they're falling on the spectrum of food insecurity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me start by asking if this is a relatively new problem. I can absolutely remember coming from a working-class community in Virginia I had friends who right after high school enlisted in part because it was their sense that being in the military meant that they wouldn't have these kinds of insecurities. Not that it would make them rich, but just that they would have some basic security around housing, food, and the ability to move into adulthood without the terror that a lot of young people were facing, especially if they weren't going to college about how to make ends meet.
Shannon Razsadin: Absolutely, and so when we look at food insecurity, it is not a new problem for military families. COVID of course has made it worse for many, but when we've been looking at this over the last few years, we've seen that this is not a new phenomenon. When we first started hearing about this from our advisory board, who worked at a food bank down in the Norfolk Virginia area, she was telling us of families who were coming in regularly to get food support.
Our research team in multiple national studies took a look at this, and we found that before the pandemic one in eight military families nationally who responded to our survey was experiencing food insecurity. When we drill that down into specific locations, we found that in some areas like Washington state, that number went up to one in five, and then in Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas, that number was at one in six. Then when we took a step back and found that during the pandemic that number nationally went to one in five.
As an organization, we know that COVID has of course exacerbated this issue just as it has for many people across the country and around the world, but we also know that we need to get food to families immediately while we work to develop long-term solutions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now food insecurity is a crisis for many communities, but help us to understand the ways that military families might be even more cut off from some of the solutions or at least the social safety net that we have. Why aren't these families eligible for SNAP and other federal food assistance?
Shannon Razsadin: This is a really complex issue for military families, and I'll start with the SNAP component, which is often known or referred to as food stamps. Because the basic allowance for housing is factored in as income, most military families are not eligible for SNAP. They are eligible for programs in many cases like the free and reduced-price meals program at schools and also WIC. We're seeing families show up and apply to get support through SNAP and they're turned away because that basic allowance for housing is factored in as income.
There are policy solutions that are in the works right now as it relates to the farm bill and other legislative efforts to try to pull the basic allowance for housing out so that it's not a component of eligibility for military families. As you look at the landscape and what military families go through, military families move on average every two and a half years. When you have that constant restart, it's really hard to understand the landscape and what resources might be available on a local level.
That coupled with issues with military spouse unemployment, which has been a perennial issue, it's really been hard for military families to get that second income that so many of us really rely on. You look at things like childcare, you look at things like the frequent move, military spouse, unemployment. When you take that step back, it's not all that surprising that military families would be having a hard time making ends meet. We're seeing the highest frequency of food insecurity among our junior and middle enlisted families who have children.
As we've been working on solutions related to this issue, we're seeing a lot of families. We launched earlier this year a 1 Million Meals Challenge provide the equivalent of 1 million meals for military families over the course of the year. I'm proud to say that we have passed the 800,000 mark and we expect to hit our millionth meal later this month. As these drive-through events, you'll see cars filled with children going through, and we're trying to create an environment of fun where people can one, get the support that they need.
This month they're meeting Santa's, last month they got hand-painted pumpkins. We're trying to really support these families and celebrate the fact that they are seeking out this help and support because it is so important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On the one hand, I appreciate it. My heart leaps up in joy of the idea of kids not feeling bad or stigmatized in this line, but like it's an opportunity to see Santa. On the other hand, I think, is there some reason we're just not paying our enlisted members enough? Especially if we know that they've got to move and as a result, their spouses are going to have difficulty with finding employment long-term and if they have young children making it that much harder. Why don't we just pay the people in our military enough so that they can purchase food or trips to Santa or whatever else is necessary?
Shannon Razsadin: Right. The compensation package is absolutely a component of this. The GAO released a report earlier this year that took a look at the basic allowance for housing too, and how in many locations it's inadequate. Basic allowance for housing is designed to cover 95% of housing expenses as well as utilities, but for many places, it's not even getting close to that. You look at high cost of living areas in some cases where military families are and you see the food insecurity component too.
It's a very complex web and we're excited and grateful that the Department of Defense is now looking at this issue. In the meantime, while these policy solutions are being worked on, organizations like the Military Family Advisory Network are really stepping in to fill that gap.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is a great point that when we look at our current federal leadership, obviously the Biden family in a very personal way, is deeply connected with questions of not only veterans but of active duty military. Do you have a sense that the Biden administration, as well as on the legislative side are looking for and partnering with you and other advocacy organizations to find solutions?
Shannon Razsadin: Absolutely. Dr. Biden has outlined food insecurity as a priority area in joining forces. This issue does have the attention of the highest levels of government and that's because the data is there. That's because we've been able to put a spotlight on this issue, thanks to media attention and opportunities like today. We're grateful for that and know that these solutions are not going to happen overnight and know that this problem is going to take a long time to resolve.
We are grateful that we have this high level of attention and that we've been able to because of the support of people who are passionate and who firmly believe that military families should not have to worry about where their next meals come from. That has allowed us to really fill that gap in the meantime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got to say the first time that I became aware of the level of need with military families around these questions is in my work with the North Carolina Diaper Bank and the level of diaper insecurity that military families have. I'm here in North Carolina and our Cape Fear Fayetteville, military base area diaper bank serves primarily actually military families. I'm wondering if there are other needs so that the food need is clear.
You've talked a little bit about whether or not that housing allowance is sufficient. Are there other clear needs facing our military families that we just need to be sure the public is aware of?
Shannon Razsadin: A lot of it when you think about the moves that are happening every two years, military families enduring the pandemic in particular need to feel like they are part of a community. We see loneliness and the connection between loneliness and issues like food and security. There's an opportunity for people to introduce themselves to help military families get acclimated to a new town, a new community, a new school, new sports team. Just being aware that military families are in your community that we are moving often and this life is incredibly transient.
The other piece that's really important to note is there's a culture of resilience among military families. There's almost a suck-it-up buttercup mentality and the thought that there's always someone who is a little bit worse off than you. By encouraging people and celebrating people when they get the support that they need and when they seek out what their family might need help with, that's a great thing. That makes it easier for others in the community to get that support too. Offering the support before people have to ask it is always a good step in the right direction and it helps to lower that stigma for so many.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shannon Razsadin, thank you for joining us on The Takeaway.
Shannon Razsadin: Thank you so much for having me.
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