On any given day, my husband and I exchange a volley of “what sounds good for dinner?” and “I don’t know, what sounds good to you?” We hem and haw before one of us finally breaks down and offers up a suggestion. But we haven’t always been so nonchalant about our daily meals.
When our children were young and my husband was a junior enlisted soldier, our monthly budget was tighter than a pair of skinny jeans after Thanksgiving dinner.
To make ends meet, we got creative with our food choices, shared living arrangements with another couple for a while, and gave up trying to save money each month.
Paydays were cause for celebration. It meant the promise of at least a few days of good eating.
We turned to the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program for some food assistance. We prayed that nothing would go wrong with the car. We hoped that the kids wouldn’t outgrow their clothes too quickly. Our bimonthly pilgrimage to the commissary helped us stretch our budget even further.
We were far from the only ones struggling to make ends meet. We knew countless other young military families doing their best not to resort to a diet of ramen noodles, peanut butter and water.
Which is why a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggesting that the Department of Defense (DoD) has no idea how many service members are turning to public food assistance programs like WIC and SNAP is a bit surprising.
DoD is tracking valid numbers for the military’s FSSA program, but with so few military families utilizing the program, and with the speculation that many service members find shame and embarrassment at the involvement of their chains of command, the program will be calling it quits in September. Fewer than 300 people qualify for FSSA worldwide, according to DoD.
When you consider that a 2015 study suggested that as many as 1 in 4 military families are using some kind of food assistance program to supplement their food budgets, it becomes clear that the data is an important part of understanding our community’s current state of affairs.
Throw in discussions about commissary closures, BAH reductions and cuts to our health care programs and one has to wonder if DoD officials truly understand the day-to-day challenges faced by today’s military families.
The GAO’s report recommended the launch of a joint effort between the USDA and DoD to gather these numbers, and based on my own personal experiences, I’d say it’s about time.
Implications of inadequate food budgets are far-reaching. When military families worry about putting food on the table, mission-readiness suffers. Inadequate nutrition, while a significant concern for children, is also part of a healthy lifestyle for service members and their spouses. What’s more, with the buying power of food dollars fluctuating from duty station to duty station, morale can suffer when nothing more than a PCS takes away a family’s sense of independence and self-reliance.
My husband is fast approaching retirement, but for the entire extent of our military journey, we’ve known young military families challenged by food costs, many of whom have had to turn to food assistance programs or food banks.
Looking back, as a young military spouse, I was too busy trying to keep up with the daily rigors of being a military spouse, mother and employee to stop and think about how wrong it was for members of the best military in the world to have any issues keeping their families fed.
In the end, we were lucky. We managed to weather the storm and now enjoy the luxury of not having to worry about what’s in our pantry or refrigerator.
But not all military families are as lucky as we have been and with this issue being so prevalent, and in light of the fact that it’s been a challenge for our community for as long as I can remember, I’d say it is high time DoD took notice.