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A volunteer for the Armed Services YMCA San Diego gets ready to give out a box of groceries to a vehicle at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on Oct. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego is home to the largest concentration of military personnel in California. But despite belonging to an institution with a massive budget and residing in an agriculturally rich region, a growing body of research suggests that servicemembers and their loved ones here suffer from food insecurity. 

It’s considered an open secret among military families, but one they’re not always willing to talk about publicly. 

Plenty of San Diegans are dealing with food insecurity, but servicemembers face several barriers that the general population does not. For instance, they’re barred from the same benefits that others get, and the nature of their work means they move around often, which makes it harder for their spouses to find jobs to support their households. 

There doesn’t appear to have been a formal study on the problem, but a network of nonprofits and academics have become more vocal as they lobby Congress to do more. An Associated Press story published last month has also helped bring attention to the issue locally. 

“Veterans are a prideful group,” said Mark Walker, an Air Force veteran who now works for the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, at a recent hearing. “Consequently, it’s very difficult for us to ask for help.” 

Colleen Heflin, a professor of public and international affairs at Syracuse University, has estimated that approximately one in eight military families across the country meet the federal definition of food insecurity, meaning they lack access to enough food required to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  

Research she cited from June 2020 at one Army installation found that one in three soldiers were marginally food insecure at the time. In testimony to the House Rules Committee in May, she also cited a Military Family Advisory Network report that found one in five military families were food insecure as of last winter.

A volunteer for the Armed Services YMCA San Diego prepares grocery bags of food that will be donated to military families at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on Oct. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The reasons vary. But advocates say one of the fundamental causes of food insecurity in the armed forces is compensation — especially among junior-level servicemembers — which hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living. One study by the nonprofit group Mazon concluded that military pay isn’t structured to support an entire family. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a two-parent household with two children needs to earn more than $97,000 a year to live in San Diego County. But an enlisted servicemember with less than two years earns an annual pay between $23,310 and $26,500, according to Heflin.  

Housing and childcare also put pressure on these families. The high cost of housing and childcare affect many levels of society, but servicemembers face a unique set of circumstances.  

Active-duty military receive a basic allowance for housing. The amount depends on geographic location, pay grade and dependency status. The housing allowance is not considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service, but it is considered income when military families apply for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as CalFresh in California — meaning many families are ineligible for food stamps, Heflin said.  

Food insecurity is not as visible as, say, homelessness and the people experiencing it may not know it, even as parents skip meals so their children can eat, said Erin Hogeboom, senior director at San Diego for Every Child, a coalition dedicated to ending child poverty. 

“If they are doubting or unsure of where their next meals will come from, that absolutely is a very obvious experience of food insecurity,” she said. 

Where servicemembers live in San Diego also impacts their access to food. Several military housing developments are in or near areas considered food deserts, or food swamps, often defined as places lacking healthy options. Those areas might have a high concentration of restaurants but typically those serving fast food.  

Hogeboom said families forced to buy cheaper and less nutritious options because they lack the resources to purchase healthy food are also food insecure. For instance, a Whole Foods could open in the middle of a food desert and still be inaccessible to the neighboring community because of the price point, she said.  

A volunteer for the Armed Services YMCA San Diego gets ready to give out bags of groceries to a vehicle at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on Oct. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Many military families rely on biweekly food distributions in the area, such as the Armed Services YMCA. Prior to the pandemic the organization served about 220 families at each location, said Tim Nye, the executive director. He said they shifted to drive-thru distributions and saw an increase of 400 percent of families once the pandemic began. 

Nye said the issue is far more complex than giving out more food. He said a root cause analysis is needed that investigates things like childcare, financial literacy, education and workforce development. 

“Hunger doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care, your age, your background, where you’re from, none of those things.” 

Mila Shrestra, a Paradise Hills resident and military spouse of a retired navy veteran, attends the monthly distribution at Murphy Canyon with her grandson. She babysits him while the parents work. 

Shrestra said the food they receive during the distribution goes a long way, supplementing the family’s daily diet. She can often prepare complete meals from the food distributed, she said, and she’ll find items not available at the grocery store on military bases. 

“I plan and come here every month,” said Shrestra. “It helps a lot.” 

Kristen Simons is a Colorado native, a military wife and mother of three. Her husband is in the Navy and currently deployed. They met in middle school and began dating in high school. She also attends the food distributions.  

“It is imperative to our grocery budget,” said Simons. “I’d say over half of our groceries are from these distributions.” 

She said the cost of living is “astronomical” and “absolutely insane” in San Diego. Money their family was able to save on groceries went toward a new engine for her car, she said. Simons stays home with her children. 

“I don’t think I could actually even have a job that would pay for the childcare for the three kids,” she said. “I wouldn’t even consider that as an option.” 

Military spouses also face unique barriers to employment.  

“Frequent residential moves associated with transfers limit the ability of spouses to accrue time working for any specific employer, which depresses wages,” Heflin, the professor, said. “Relocation is a particular problem for spouses working in occupations that require certification given the differences in state requirements.” 

Spouses must cope with their active-duty family members being at work for long hours or deployed, said Heflin. Hence, spousal employment is lower among active-duty families versus civilian families, and when spouses work, they tend to work fewer hours and earn lower wages, she said. 

Mazon’s study also found military families often relocate every two to three years, away from community and family support networks, making access to childcare — which can cost thousands of dollars a month — more difficult. 

Danny Romero, program director for SAY San Diego and San Diego Military Family Collaborative, said military spouses often must choose between furthering their career or staying home with the children.  

Food insecurity can be a source of shame and social stigma, and it’s why food distributions at Armed Services YMCA are festive. The organizers play upbeat music and volunteers greet everyone with a smile. The group believes in distribution with dignity to make the environment more welcoming. 

A volunteer for the Armed Services YMCA San Diego adds groceries to a vehicle at a food distribution in Murphy Canyon on Oct. 28, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“I’ve seen people’s bodies trembling from head to toe because it’s humiliating,” Nye said. “No one wakes up on a Thursday morning and says, ‘I can’t wait to go get in a food line.’ It’s not the excitement of the day.” 

Self-reliance is deeply engrained in military culture, which causes servicemembers to see food stamps as a handout, said Andy Kopp, a Navy veteran and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, a leadership development group. He said there’s an element of unwarranted shame surrounding food insecurity, as though admitting there’s a problem amounts to a personal failure. 

“If the choice is between skipping a meal and making sure that the electricity is on, then you make sure the electricity is on or pay your rent and so forth,” he said. 

Kopp attributes much of the issue to increasing housing costs and said it is the number one driver of poverty in California. 

In previous years, about 50 percent of military families planned on staying in San Diego or surrounding areas while now those numbers are about 15 percent according to surveys, said Romero. 

Advocates say government intervention is necessary because they cannot solely be responsible for the long-term sustenance of the military community.  

Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from San Diego, is a cosponsor of the Military Child Care Expansion Act and the Military Hunger Prevention Act. Both are intended to bring down the costs for military families and increase allowances. 

“The defense budget can’t just be about weapons systems and equipment — we should start with prioritizing personnel, especially given how much we ask of them,” she said in a statement. 

Doing so is not only the right thing, she added, but essential to retaining and recruiting talented people, boosting morale and maintaining the nation’s readiness. 

 “Long waitlists and substandard childcare facilities have put additional financial pressure on families that often don’t have a lot of resources,” she said. “It’s unacceptable that so many military families are facing so many challenges that are well within our control to fix.” 

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