ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- With the COVID-19 pandemic, and the additional economic challenges facing families as a result, the topic of food insecurity has received more attention in the news. While food insecurity might be thought of as an issue for the civilian public, there has been very little discussion of food insecurity within the military until recently.
Creating awareness is a first step in guiding military service members to resources. As a leader, have you ever worried about a military service member or family in your unit experiencing financial difficulties? Have you ever had a conversation asking if they were worried about whether they had enough food to last until the next pay day?
Leaders may not think about asking service members these questions or even discussing it in formations. However, leaders should be aware that service members may be quietly dealing with food insecurity. Leaders can create open and safe spaces to disclose challenges and potential unique circumstances. Leaders should also be aware that food security exists on a spectrum with different levels of both food security and food insecurity.
For example, marginal food insecurity reflects compromised economic access to food. Marginal food insecurity means some families are choosing foods that are less expensive but also have less nutritional value to stretch resources, others are skipping meals to feed their children, or are seeking out food banks and other community resources to make ends meet. Marginal food insecurity can influence eating patterns and long-term habits for children and adults. Food insecurity is associated with numerous adverse health outcomes in adults including obesity in the overall population.
Here are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definitions of food security and food insecurity:
- High food security: no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
- Marginal food security: typically, anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house.
- Low food security: reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.
- Very low food security: reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The USDA just published a report titled “Household Food Security in the United States in 2020”, and estimated 10.5 percent of American households were food insecure, and 3.9 percent experienced very low food security (i.e., multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake), at any point during the previous 12 months. Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources.
Active-duty populations have received less attention in food insecurity research. To better understand the issue, the U.S. Army Public Health Center conducted two cross-sectional studies in 2019 and 2020 at two different installations using the Hunger Vital Signs survey questions concerning food insecurity.
The Hunger Vital Signs survey is a brief screening tool that uses the following two questions to identify families at risk for food insecurity. These questions were first outlined in a 2010 study titled “Development and validity of a 2-item screen to identify families at risk for food insecurity,” and published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Pediatric Association.
- “Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.”
- “Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just did not last and we didn’t have money to get more.”
In the 2019 APHC survey of nearly 6,000 Soldiers at one Army installation, one in three Soldiers reported marginal food insecurity. This study, titled the “Association between Food Insecurity, Mental Health, and Intentions to Leave the U.S. Army in a Cross-Sectional Sample of U.S. Soldiers”, was published in the July 2021 Journal of Nutrition and selected as an editor’s choice. It found Soldiers who identified as marginally food insecure were more likely to be depressed, anxious, and report suicide ideation when compared to Soldiers who were not marginally food insecure. Further, Soldiers with these outcomes were more likely to leave the Army after their current service period.
The second study was conducted at a different installation in 2020 with a sample of nearly 5,000 Soldiers and found that 16 percent were marginally food insecure in the 12 months before the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 31 percent in June 2020. These findings were outlined in an APHC working paper titled “Food Insecurity Among Active-Duty Soldiers and Their Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Here are some more findings from this sample:
- Prior to the pandemic, the prevalence of marginal food insecurity among Army households was similar to the general population. Marginal food insecurity among Army households increased over 1.5-fold with the onset of the pandemic.
- One in seven (15 percent) of Army households transitioned from being highly food secure before the pandemic to being marginally food insecure after the onset of the pandemic.
- An additional 16.3 percent of Army households reported they were consistently marginally food insecure before and during the pandemic.
- Black or Asian/Pacific Islander Soldiers in the household were associated with a 7- and 13 percent-point increase in marginally food insecurity, respectively, when compared to households with a White Soldier.
- Households with a Soldier between the ages of 17–29, or households with children were more likely to report marginal food insecurity.
The findings in the APHC study were consistent with those found by the Blue Star Families organization in their 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report:
- 14 percent of enlisted active-duty family respondents reported low or very low food security.
- While low food security is most prominent among junior enlisted family respondents (29 percent), higher ranking enlisted families also experience it.
- Officers don’t experience food insecurity in near the same amount as higher income equates to lower food insecurity.
Why would military members be at risk for marginal food insecurity? There are a variety of reasons that may contribute such as:
- Younger population
- Less experience with financial management
- Moving frequently
- Challenges for the spouse finding a job after a move
- Service members less likely to participate in, or qualify for, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Duty stations located in high cost of living areas
- Unexpected life events such as support for extended family, out of pocket expenses associated with family emergencies or medical conditions, etc.
For September National Hunger Action Month, the U.S. Army Public Health Center is encouraging all leaders and Service Members to increase awareness of the potential needs of Service members and Families. Leaders can help with education and referring military members to nutrition and financial planning resources.
There are several services on military installations to help with this issue:
- Army Community Services (ACS) programs support Soldiers, civilian employees, and Families.
- Nutrition education with local dietitians through Commissary tours and educational programs. Check your local Military Treatment Facility webpages.
- Community Resource Guide.
- Army Emergency Relief.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To get SNAP benefits, you must apply in the state in which you currently live and you must meet certain requirements.
- Women, Infant and Children (WIC). The WIC Program is designed to serve certain categories of women, infants, and children.
- Women, Infants and Children Overseas Program can help families stationed abroad.
- National School Lunch Program (and USDA Foods in Schools), School Breakfast Program, Special Milk Program for Children, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program.
- Local food banks and other resources in your area.
The U.S. Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing, and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.