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Food insecurity affects San Diego military families. Here’s what needs to change.

While serving in senior military leadership positions from 2001 to 2015, including as vice commander of the U.S. Submarine Force in the Navy, I never heard about the problem of hunger within the ranks. This is for two reasons: I wasn’t looking, and no one would have talked about it.

Admitting the need for help for something as basic as food for your family would have been perceived as a weakness. Asking fellow service members for help was not part of the culture. We got three meals a day on board the ship. But did my shipmates’ families have food on the table at home?

Today, knowing that as many as 160,000 active-duty enlisted service members experience difficulty putting food on the table, I am shocked that I was unaware this problem existed. I am sure that many others serving in the military today are also unaware.

I never knew of the problem of military hunger until I started my current role at Feeding San Diego, the local Feeding America affiliate. I learned that one of the demographics in serious need of food assistance was my own former Navy community. Our nonprofit operates a program called “Feeding Heroes” to provide hunger relief to active military members and veterans, and their families. Promoting this program, we hear disbelief from the general public when they learn that members of the military community often rely on nonprofit organizations to meet basic needs.

San Diego County is home to one of the largest concentrations of veterans and military personnel in the world. The military employed over 145,000 residents in 2021. Approximately 75 percent are active-duty military personnel. Almost half are junior enlisted, the lowest salaried employees in our military. Meanwhile, the city of San Diego’s cost of living is 47 percent higher than the national average. That percentage jumps to 55 percent higher than the national average for San Diego County. While the military provides allowances for specific needs, such as a Basic Allowance for Housing, the simple truth is that these allowances often do not cover the expenses for junior personnel with families.

As we see in civilian society, economically challenged families are the ones who struggle. The difference with military hunger is the perception that everyone is taken care of in the military. While our service members are given more than their civilian counterparts, it’s still insufficient, especially with high inflation.

Many factors contribute to food insecurity for active-duty families, including lower rank, maturity, having children and duty location. The confluence of cost versus affordability drives military families to make hard decisions that affect the food they purchase, among other tough choices.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense identified areas where the cost of rental housing has increased by an average of 20 percent, making it especially challenging for service members to find affordable housing. Six locations nationwide will see a temporary hike in their Basic Allowance for Housing as part of a Department of Defense initiative to help combat higher costs of living, and San Diego is one of them. However, this change is temporary.

In our hunger-relief work, the CalFresh Program (federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides monthly benefits used to buy nutritious groceries. It helps many low-income families afford food. Because the Basic Allowance for Housing is included in determining CalFresh eligibility, many San Diego service members are ineligible for benefits.

In an effort to address this issue, California recently enacted Senate Bill 950, which requires the state Department of Social Services to submit a request for a federal waiver to exclude any Basic Allowance for Housing in the determination of CalFresh eligibility. However, this is a short-term solution that would require annual renewal and is subject to federal approval.

For a long-term solution, Congress needs to expand eligibility for the basic needs allowances to households making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level and exclude the Basic Allowance for Housing from the gross income calculation. Not only would these changes improve the well-being of currently enlisted members, the changes would also allow the members to end their service and become veterans on steadier footing.

Until those levers are exercised, I have accepted a new call to duty to help cover the hunger gaps felt by our service members through my work at Feeding San Diego. Alongside our valued partners, which include exemplary nonprofits like Support the Enlisted Project and USO San Diego, our organization works to address a few of the shortcomings that continue to affect military families and veterans.

My hope is that we are a short-term solution for the individuals who give so much to our country — and deserve more.

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