About 160,000 active-duty military members are struggling to put food on the table, according to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Feeding America. Most of those families are enlisted, of the ranks E1 to E4, and have children.
Like other segments of society, food insecurity -- defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as lacking consistent access to enough food to be active and healthy -- is a big issue for military families. Here are some ways to receive assistance:
For immediate assistance, military families can go to a local food bank. Depending on where you live, there may be several options or locations for pickup. Organizations like local churches and the Red Cross may have some ideas as well.
The Feeding America website has more than 200 local food banks in its directory. The organization distributes more than 4.3 million meals each year.
For military families with young children, there is another option. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, is federally funded and is available to families across the United States -- and those serving overseas. The program is designed for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, infants and children who are up to 5 years old. WIC gives vouchers for specific foods, like milk, bread, infant formula, fruits and vegetables, to help families provide nutritional meals for their children. The vouchers can be used at most grocery stores, including the commissary, for specific brand items.
Eligibility is determined by income level and family size. Each state runs its own program, and military families can transfer to their next state if they continue to meet requirements. If moving overseas, military families can check with the local WIC program, usually located at the family support center.
"We qualified for WIC after we had our first child and moved to a duty station where I couldn't find work, then continued to qualify for seven years, until we had four children and I started working regularly," said Lizann Lightfoot, a milspouse author also known as the Seasoned Spouse, in an interview.
She explained how her children quickly learned to grab the correct brands of WIC items, such as beans, milk and wheat bread, off the shelves.
"WIC helped shape my cooking habits as a young mother, and I definitely noticed the grocery bill increase when the vouchers ran out," Lightfoot said.
Another option for assistance with food costs is through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Just like the WIC program, SNAP eligibility is determined by family size and income level. One additional eligibility requirement is employment, which includes looking for a job. Children, seniors, pregnant women and those exempt for physical or mental health reasons may not be held to the work requirement.
SNAP also is run at the state level, where questions and applications are processed. Some states have online applications.
SNAP benefits are given to recipients on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card. The card can be used at authorized stores. An additional benefit for those eligible for SNAP benefits is a 50% discount on an Amazon Prime membership. Amazon also accepts SNAP EBT cards for eligible purchases. The discounted membership can help reduce costs on some items that SNAP doesn't cover, such as diapers.
Meals for School-Aged Kids
Almost a quarter of military students (23.8%) reported that their children qualify for free or reduced meals at school. While the last two school years (2020-2022) have given all students free meals, these families may require additional assistance when school is out. The School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs are designed to help feed children during the summer at various locations. Each school district should have more information, or you can text "Summer Meals" to 914-415-6617 or call 1-866-348-6479 to find a site near you.
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