Over a quarter of service members in the U.S. have experienced food insecurity in recent years, according to a new study by the RAND Corporation. The report, released this week, said that 25.8% of Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Army personnel were food insecure. More than half of those who experienced food insecurity, 15.4%, were on active duty.
“We were surprised at the estimate. …I mean, that’s a lot of people,” said Dr. Beth Asch, senior economist at RAND and lead author of the report.
According to the report, research by RAND was requested by the Defense Department. It followed the Department of Defense’s (DOD) mandate by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 to report on food insecurity among the different service branches.
The RAND report studied data from 2016 to 2018 reports from the Pentagon over those on active duty to construct their estimate. Asch said the number is virtually the same as the Defense Department’s 2020 estimate of around 25% of service members who have experienced it.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed the issue in 2021, directed a temporary increase in the primary housing allowance in some high-cost areas, and said the military will provide relief “to alleviate economic insecurity.”
“Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about,” said Austin. “Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them.”
RAND conducted conversations with on-base officials who worked on financial planning, community providers, and military commanders to construct the report. During the discussions, the report showed that food insecurity is an ongoing problem among troops on active duty but said there were “wide disagreements” on the widespread issue.
According to RAND, one individual at a military installation said food insecurity “has always been something that’s come up.” Another person said that food insecurity is “bigger than we can even get our arms around.”
“As compared to the general population, certainly the poverty experience is very different,” said a representative of a military installation. “Service members aren’t living in poverty in the same way. But…it’s also the dirty little secret: that there are service members with families and children making the salary of an E-4 who need help getting food on the table.”
However, it’s been hard for outside organizations and the DOD to understand what the insecurity stems from.
Report identifies several barriers to assistance
The report identified several barriers to service members receiving assistance, including the perceived ‘stigma’ surrounding requesting help. RAND found that troops believe if they seek assistance, their careers may be impacted negatively. Additionally, the military’s longstanding culture of “self-sufficiency and pride has kept members from seeking help for food or financial insecurity,” and troops may fear being viewed negatively by leadership for doing so.
Respondents said that spousal employment issues, combined with permanent change of station (PCS) moves and challenges from Covid-19, were also key issues that contributed to financial challenges and food insecurity.
However, several people who spoke to RAND pointed out the inability of some service members to create and stick to a budget or need a solid grasp of financial management.
“I think if you look at the cars that are on base, you know there are people who are overextending themselves,” said a base representative in the report. “Some of it is the materialistic components of our society and keeping up with the Joneses. The same thing that happens outside the gates happens here, too.”
The report concluded there would probably not “be one silver bullet” to fix the issue, according to Asch. “I think that the estimate is high, and that is worthy of attention,” said Asch. “But I also think that one needs to recognize that before launching into a full-out assault on the problem, it needs to have a clear understanding of why this problem is happening.”