About 24% of active duty service members experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020, according to a new Defense Department analysis of the problem in the military. And on Thursday, DoD officials laid out a plan to do something about that.

Officials said in a new report that they will focus on helping service members and families get the food they need, while also improving their economic security over the long term.

For longer term economic security of service members, officials will analyze the Basic Allowance for Housing benefit; evaluate the feasibility of Dependent Care Flexible Spending accounts for service members; and review options to increase the dislocation allowance to further defray out-of-pocket costs for service members during a permanent change of station move.

Other efforts range from improving the availability of affordable, healthy food on military installations, to improving employment opportunities for military spouses and availability of affordable child care.

Officials are also putting together a plan for implementing the new Basic Needs Allowance, set to start in January 2023, as a safety net for families in need.

Efforts also expand and build on many programs and resources that have been available for years, and part of the work will involve more outreach and education to troops and families.

The focus of this strategy “is to equip our service members and families with the tools, skills, and resources necessary to ensure they have access to sufficient nutritious food to meet the myriad demands of the military mission, without having to endure undue hardship or make difficult financial and personal decisions that may impact their quality of life,” wrote Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr., under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in the report.

Problems with financial security show up in a variety of ways, including food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as a situation in which “a person or a household doesn’t have enough nutritious food to live an active, healthy life, and can range from relying on cheaper, less-nutritious foods to skipping meals,” according to the report. There’s also a difference between food security and hunger.

“Hunger describes a physiological condition, while food security measures economic access to food rather than the experience of being hungry,” the report says.

DoD officials have abandoned their previous method for determining the prevalence of food insecurity in the military, which used the percentage of service members enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also previously known as food stamps. The 13th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation completed in 2020 reported that between 0.08% and 0.1% of service members — between 880 and 1,100 members — use SNAP benefits.

The new analysis comes from the survey of active duty members, fielded from Oct. 26, 2020, through Jan. 25, 2021, which asked questions related to their experience over the previous 12 months, using the standardized U.S. Department of Agriculture measure of food security.

That survey was fielded to a random, representative sampling of 125,000 active duty members. The response rate was 12%. It was fielded in the first year of the pandemic, and also before the current high levels of food inflation.

The analysis of the 2020 Status of Forces Survey of Active Duty Members showed:

  • 76% of total active duty service members were food secure, and 24% had experienced food insecurity at some point in the preceding year of the survey. Food security as defined by USDA means access at all times to enough food for an active, healthful life for all household members.
  • 14% reported experiencing low food security. That means reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. There’s little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • 10% reported experiencing very low food security. That means there were multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
  • Junior enlisted members, who have typically less than four years of service, are at the highest risk of food insecurity.

Analysis of the 2018 survey of active duty members, and the 2021 survey of active duty spouses, showed similar trend lines. For enlisted members with an unemployed spouse, 43% reported food insecurity at some point in the previous year. Overall, military spouses who were unemployed reported higher rates of food insecurity, 41%, than spouses who were employed, 22%.

Officials are taking a broad approach to address the problem, even as they continue to gather data and conduct analysis of the root causes and impact of food insecurity.

Cisneros will provide progress reports on each of six lines of effort to the deputy secretary of defense. The lines of efforts are:

  • Increase access to healthy food. Actions include the Defense Commissary Agency’s at-home grocery delivery pilot at eight locations, with agency-wide expansion expected soon after; the commissary agency’s efforts to increase access to on-the-go, ready-to-eat, economical and healthy food options; and the military departments’ reviews of dining facility hours and access to healthy options and the effectiveness of their meal card programs.
  • Review service member pay and benefits. DoD is analyzing the Basic Allowance for Housing benefit and will evaluate the feasibility of implementing Dependent Care Flexible Spending accounts for service members. Advocates have long urged these steps. Officials are also reviewing ways to increase the dislocation allowance that troops receive to further defray the out-of-pocket costs troops incur when making a PCS move. Officials are also making plans to implement the Basic Needs Allowance in January 2023.
  • Enhance spouse employment opportunities. DoD officials will categorize job opportunities offered by partners in the Military Spouse Employment Partnership program to identify gaps, find ways to increase employment in specific fields, and find ways to better connect spouses with job opportunities. They’ve been working on interstate licensure compacts for seven professions since last year. DoD will also expand the Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood Plus program to additional states and finalize a near-term agreement with the Department of State to allow military spouses employed by the federal government to work remotely from overseas locations.
  • Reinforce financial resources and awareness. Among other things, DoD and the services will launch a self-guided financial well-being assessment tool to help service members find resources.
  • Encourage service members and families to seek resources and services. Among other things, DoD will develop a “Resources at the Ready” campaign to increase awareness of all military benefits and quality of life resources available to troops and their families. They’ll work with military-connected organizations to set up outreach sessions for service members and families.
  • Expand data collection and reporting. Officials seek more data and analysis to understand the scope and reasons for food insecurity. One screening tool has been added to the Military Health System to identify those at risk of being food insecure. Parents answer questions about the child’s family, including food insecurity. All Military and Family Life Counselors will screen for food insecurity when they meet with service members and families.

DoD will conduct research to get information at the installation level about food insecurity, but they’ll also work with a number of federal agencies in various research efforts.

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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