Jennifer Gilmore, executive director of the Feeding America San Diego food bank, recently drove through a neighborhood of three-bedroom homes with manicured lawns and clean sidewalks in a military housing development. When she arrived at her destination — the neighborhood school — she was stunned to see 300 people waiting for food.
She saw military in uniform as the group, including parents and young children, gathered to briefly acknowledge a new renovation of the school library, with some short speeches from administrators. Then the families gave the pledge of allegiance — and lined up for food.
The scene of service members pledging the flag of their country and turning around to collect bags of produce shocked Gilmore.
"It just sent chills down my spine, it didn't feel right," she said. "You just never know what the face of poverty is going to look like."
Increasingly, the face of poverty includes America's service members. About 620,000 households that include one or more soldiers — reservist or guardsman — or 20 percent of the country's active duty and reserve personnel, are seeking food aid according to a newly released study about food insecurity conducted by Feeding America, a hunger relief charity.
Another 2.37 million households that include veterans get assistance from food pantries. The numbers, which have been climbing over the past several years, surprised even Gilmore, who serves a lot of military families in the San Diego area. About 27 percent of the population that Gilmore serves are military, according to the new study results.
Military hunger is so apparent in San Diego that partner agencies of Gilmore’s organization hold a distribution on Camp Pendleton and military housing developments, and the organization has a partnership with the United Service Organization, a nonprofit group that provides programs to troops and their families.
"The military community is known for taking care of each other," Gilmore said. "The fact that they are now relying on outside organizations to meet the need is telling. Perhaps the need has gotten greater than they are able to manage."
The need is caused by various factors, according to experts. Reasons range from low pay, to the difficulty for spouses to hold down jobs with base transfers and deployments, or to the high cost of living in places like San Diego. Veterans face low disability pay and retirement funds.
Gilmore has seen a 40 percent increase in demand for her food bank in the last six years since the onset of the recession, and she's seen a big increase in need from military families in that time.
The problem isn't isolated to California, either. Requests for food aid have surged in places with military bases, including Delaware, Texas and Virginia, according to the survey data. Operation Homefront, an organization that offers financial and food assistance to service members, said that requests for food assistance have tripled since 2008.
The Feeding America hunger study, which mobilized 6,000 volunteers to interview people in food lines at over 12,000 sites, found that 1 in 7 people are turning to food pantries for assistance, and indicates that low-income families are still struggling to get by, even though macroeconomic indicators suggest that the economy is on the up and up.
"Of people who are employed, low-income families are likely to work part time, and if they are employed, they're working in positions where the wages are lower than in 2007," said Maura Daly, chief external affairs officer at Feeding America. "If you look at where the jobs are coming back, it's not helping low-income families much."
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen released a statement that the Pentagon was reviewing the survey, and was “concerned with anything that impacts the wellness and readiness of service members and families."
He added that personal financial counseling and military stores provide savings to troops, and that the Department of Defense disagrees with the methodology that the study used to calculate the estimated percentage of military households served by food assistance, but that "the work of Feeding America and other organizations will help the department amplify the DOD resources available to service members and families, particularly in high-cost locations.”
High risk, low pay
Enlisted soldiers, who have the lowest salaries in the military, can make as much as $65,000 a year, but that's only after they have logged 18 years or more of service. Otherwise, pay can start as low as $18,000, according to the Department of Defense pay grade for 2014. That's just above the average for fast-food workers, which is about $18,880 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While military personnel also get tax-free allowances for housing and food, apparently many families are still struggling to make ends meet, or live paycheck to paycheck.
"Nobody joins the military to make a lot of money," said Mike Barron, Army Col. Mike Barron (Ret.), who notes that there are misconceptions about how much full-time military personnel make.
He describes the military as a "pyramid" structure, where a few at the top, who have made it through a number of cutbacks and highly competitive rounds of promotions, make it to the 20-year retirement mark and receive full retirement benefits. But only 17 percent of military personnel make it to that point.
In between, thousands of soldiers get laid off, essentially, or leave the service, and the bulk of the military is made up of those at the bottom of the pyramid, those in low-paying, lower-ranking positions.
Someone who has been in the military for six or seven years might make a salary in the 30s or 40s, depending on rank, but for someone who enlisted right out of high school and did three years, plus a deployment, the base pay might be in the upper 20s, says Barron.
A lot of people at the bottom of the pyramid are trying to support entire families on a salary that's in the 20,000-something range: "That's a lot of stress," Barron said.
Deployments and constantly moving makes it hard for military spouses to get and keep good jobs and develop their careers.
Military families are often moved to expensive places like Southern California or Washington, D.C. When Barron moved his family to D.C, he received a housing stipend, but it fell short of the cost of living by about 20 percent, which he made up out of pocket. That 20 percent can "stretch a family tight' when they're already on a budget.
A lot of these families are making difficult choices between food and paying for utilities, or food and transportation and medication, says Daly. It's not just a food shortage — it's struggling to make ends meet and making difficult trade-offs.
One issue is the pay level for low-level military employees, said Gilmore. Another is that military housing can be counted as income, and that disqualifies some families from benefits like the SNAP food stamp program.
"I talk to military families and they have seen five deployments, and the recession has prevented spouses from getting good jobs," said Gilmore, who sees a lot of active military, and "young" veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom have seen multiple deployments.
It used to be that she would see these families for a couple months after a crisis — such as a car breaking down or someone getting sick.
"Now it's a consistent food source," she said. "People are planning on having it."
"The No. 1 coping mechanism that hungry families reported was buying cheaper food that's less nutritious," Daly said. That contributes to other problems — participants in the hunger study also reported high levels of diabetes and hypertension.
Help for the pantry and the wallet
Pat Walker is the president of Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves 10 counties all the way up to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with military bases all along the coast. Almost a quarter of the people she serves are current or former military.
About 20 percent of the people that Lowcountry serves are seniors, so they see a lot of older veterans, which presents its own challenge: "A lot of these are people who made a living wage in their work life, but in retirement prices keep going up, and there's no increase in income," Walker said.
She said seniors will make choices between food and medicine, or scrimp and only take half a prescription when food gets low. They don't have enough money for food, electricity, medicine and rent so one or two get compromised.
Like Jennifer Gilmore in San Diego, Walker has seen an almost 50 percent increase in demand in the last six years, and she's moving a lot of fresh produce. Right now in the low country late summer that means a lot of okra, potatoes, cantaloupe and some tomatoes.
One of the big changes in food banking in the last decade, and one of the success stories, is mobilizing fresh produce, said Walker, who serves over 200,000 people through local food pantries.
Feeding America has helped Lowcountry Food Bank make partnerships with local and national chains — like Wal-Mart and Harris Teeter — to pick up "overage," food that is still edible but is approaching the end of shelf life. Walker's organization now handles a fleet of drivers and refrigerated trucks that conduct daily pickups and whisk the food to delivery points while it's still fresh. This move from canned goods toward refrigeration and perishables is a food pantry "revolution," Walker said and fresh produce counts for almost half of what her organization provides now.
That's key because for families with food shortages are more likely to buy cheaper food that's less nutritious — usually of the processed variety — and produce can be cost-prohibitive: "If you have a family with three children and only X number of dollars, you are going to make some unhealthy choices," she said
Of course, ideally families and individuals would be able to make ends meet without having to rely on food pantries at all. Sue Katz has crisscrossed the state of Massachusetts for the last five years, giving members of the military pre- and post-deployment financial education and one-on-one help.
She oversees the veterans and military programming for American Consumer Credit Counseling in Massachusetts, and said that many veterans have their identities stolen during deployment and they also deal with expensive issues like divorce or health problems as well as bankruptcy and foreclosures.
So, what's the No. 1 thing she would like to see to help veterans with finances? Streamline the paperwork.
She recently worked with a young quadriplegic veteran to get his benefits that can take years, she said.
"There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and some people give up," she said. "For wounded warriors to get through the process of getting VA benefits can take two years — think about him and his family trying to support themselves waiting for disability, and all that stress."
There are success stories. Her quadriplegic soldier completed the "Upward Bound" college prep program and is now going to school and working.
Financial literacy can help, she said, especially for young people who entered the military right out of high school and are deployed and have never had to manage a budget.
Military personnel need more of these kinds of resources to get them on their feet, she said, and budget cuts threaten programs for returning military like the Department of Defense Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, and financial counseling through the National Guard and Reserves, which helps families with resources for health care, education and legal benefits.
Sequestration and the military drawback, which underwent intense criticism when the Army sent pink slips earlier this summer to 1,100 captains while they were deployed in Afghanistan and other volatile areas, also threatens military pay and reintegration and financial planning help for military members.
Barron's group, the MOAA, is working to lift a new pay cap that limits military raises. This year, the Defense Department issued its lowest pay raise in 50 years — 1 percent — according to the MOAA, and will continue to ask Congress for the same raise through 2017.
Barron, who moved his family 20 times in a 30-year military career, and noted that his oldest kids went to high school in three different states — a tough situation for school and social life, much less joining teams or band, or activities that civilians take for granted.
Fair treatment and compensation is "the right thing for all we ask these folks to do," he said. "It's a stressful life."