The Defense Department now “owns” the issue of food insecurity among military families, an official said Tuesday.

This is now one of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s “very highest” priorities, said Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, during a panel discussion convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He wants to make sure we’re addressing this and getting to it as quickly as we can,” she said.

It has been difficult to quantify the problem of hunger in military families. For years, advocates have been pushing DoD to gather accurate data on food insecurity. That is a core element of DoD’s new effort, Barron said. “We are gathering data and analyzing relevant statistics, which will help us better scope the problem,” she said, noting that she is “foot stomping the research piece.”

When she came to her job at the Defense Department in January, she said, she began having conversations with colleagues about food insecurity. “I really did get a look that said to me, ‘We don’t think we have a problem.’ The reason they thought we didn’t have a problem was, at the time, we were just looking at the low SNAP numbers,” she said. SNAP is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

But in her previous work as a family advocate in the nonprofit Association of the U.S. Army, she said, she was hearing that food insecurity in the military is a problem, as she came into DoD.

“No one at the department owned the issue,” she said, “not that anyone needs to own it. But I felt like I at least needed to raise the awareness,” she said.

She brought in an Army colonel to speak about the issue of how financial insecurity affects the physical and mental state of a person, and 90 people came to listen, she said.

Her office has also started working with experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, too. Lawmakers have also been asking questions about the issue. “Now the department is much more aware,” she said. “Military Community and Family Policy office now owns the issue of food insecurity, and we’re hard at work since April to develop a plan for the department that everyone can wrap their arms around.”

Some steps under way:

*Barron’s office will start to train Military Family Life counselors and Military OneSource consultants on resources available for families experiencing food insecurity.

*DoD will pilot a food insecurity assessment tool that will help determine the needs of service members and families.

*Her office is working with the DoD financial readiness office to make sure families know what resources are available. The financial readiness office will also implement a tool of their own to address the issue.

Food insecurity is a readiness and national security issue, Barron said, but proper nutrition is also an issue, because service members and their families need the proper nutrition to keep their minds and bodies performing at their best. She noted that many parents will often give up their own food to make sure their children can eat. If service members are worried about their families not getting enough to eat, it can affect their ability to do their job and the mission, she said. And it’s not just married troops: DoD is also looking at food insecurity among single service members.

“We ask a lot of our families and especially our children who have to move from place to place. Shouldn’t we provide them the very best care we can? Military families shouldn’t have any challenges with food.”

“Now that we’re more aware of the situation, we really need to get after it, and provide our families with resources. We have a plethora of resources. We just need to be sure our families are aware of them,” Barron said.

While there is little data to quantify the problem, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, has been digging into the issue and its consequences. Matthew Rabbitt said his recent research based on a survey sent to all soldiers at one installation found that one in three active duty soldiers are classified as “marginally food insecure,” meaning they reported any indications of food hardship among themselves and their family members. In addition, the second finding was that mental health is key to their long-term connection to the military and the well being of their families. “Given that we find service members’ mental health is associated with their food insecurity, addressing food insecurity may be one way to improve these outcomes,” he said, during the panel.

There are significant gaps in information, Rabbitt said. “We need to answer key questions,” he said. “What are the causes and the consequences of military food insecurity? We need to get better data and larger data sets to fully understand the consequences of food insecurity.”

Fewer military households getting SNAP?

One important question that needs to be addressed is the relationship between SNAP benefits and food insecurity in the military, Rabbitt said. There tend to be fewer military and veteran households in the SNAP population, in comparison to their civilian counterparts, he said.

The issue of military compensation is outside Barron’s bailiwick, but she said there are conversations in other areas of DoD about pay, and SNAP, and how families qualify for SNAP. DoD is looking at how SNAP currently works and whether adjustments could be made. But the research that’s just begun looking at food insecurity in the active duty community will hopefully provide good information. “The more we understand what our families are experiencing, the better we’ll be able to support them,” she said.

Barron noted that while young service members may be paid better than some of their civilian counterparts, “some young service members come in with families” — and more expenses.

While SNAP program benefits are tied to family size, military pay isn’t, noted Shelley Kimball, senior director of research and program evaluation for the Military Family Advisory Network. She said their research shows an increased frequency in military food insecurity among those with larger families. Her organization is conducting research on the causal factors of food insecurity in military families.

The Basic Allowance for Housing, and how it affects eligibility for SNAP benefits, is a frequent topic and long-standing problem. In their research, Kimball said, “we see military families say they are applying but not qualifying” for SNAP benefits.

MFAN’s research shows that military and veteran families “aren’t seeking assistance as much as we’d like them to,” for a variety of reasons, such as a perceived stigma, Kimball said. “Having this open dialogue that it’s an issue, and trying to lead families to support systems” is important, she said. Organizations can work together to make sure families get the food they need now, but also to provide the long-term support families need, she said.

DoD “is all in to make sure no military family goes hungry [and that no military family lacks] the proper nutrition at the table to do their very best,” Barron said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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