Enlisted personnel generally earn more money than their civilian counterparts, but have a higher rate of food insecurity, according to a new Rand Corp. report.

That is just one of the findings that puzzled researchers who conducted the congressionally mandated study of military food insecurity for the Defense Department.

Researchers determined that 25.8% of active duty members were food insecure in 2018, compared to 9% of civilians, based on their analysis of a DoD status of forces survey of active duty members that year.

“I wasn’t expecting that the rate of food insecurity would be so high relative to civilians,” Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand and lead author of the study, told Military Times.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Researchers found that food insecure active duty members were more likely to be in the grades of E-4 to E-6, which is contrary to the general belief that most are junior enlisted. They were also more likely to be part of a racial or ethnic minority, and were “disproportionately” in the Army.

The food insecurity rate was also higher among those who reported living on post, rather than on the economy. Part of that is related to their finding that junior enlisted members who lived on post and were food insecure ate fewer meals, on average, in dining facilities than similar personnel who were food secure.

It’s clear from the DoD surveys that food insecurity is a problem that affects a wide variety of military members and families, but researchers don’t yet have a good handle on the underlying causes, Asch said. “The main thing I came away with is that DoD needs to do more investigating. And they are. I’d like to see more data gathered and more analysis of the data they already have,” she said.

This report raised more questions that need to be answered before specific policies can be recommended, researchers noted. “The data are suggesting things we just don’t understand,” Asch said.

While some advocates praised the report for illustrating the pervasiveness of “this shameful situation,” they took issue with the researchers’ claim that the underlying causes of military hunger remain unclear.

“For over a decade, Mazon and our partners have been urging policymakers to understand and enact common-sense policy fixes that would help more military families access food assistance from programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps),” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which consulted with Rand on the report.

“Had the Rand researchers prioritized perspectives from military families who experience hunger over military leaders who allow this problem to continue, they would have a clearer picture of the causes, impacts and solutions,” he said.

Service members who participated in the survey were characterized as being “food insecure” if they answered yes to two or more of six U.S. Department of Agriculture short-form food security questions that were included in the 2018 DoD Status of Forces Surveys of Active Duty Members.

Researchers note there are varying levels of food insecurity. Food secure personnel answered none or just one of the survey questions positively. Low food security meant troops responded positively to two to four questions. Troops with very low food security responded affirmatively to five or all six of the questions.

Of those who were characterized as food insecure in 2018, 60% of those — about 15.4% of all active duty personnel — would be classified by the USDA definition as having low food security.

Researchers drilled down into the data of the characteristics of those who were food insecure. The analysis included 15,240 service members who responded to at least one of the survey questions about food insecurity. Researchers also had discussions with military installation personnel, advocacy groups, military compensation and personnel experts, and local food assistance providers.

Single service members are included in the analysis. Of the food insecure service members, 37% were single without children.

The finding that more than a quarter of active duty service members experienced food insecurity at some point in 2018 aligns with a report and DoD analysis released in July, finding that 24% of active duty troops experienced food insecurity in 2020.

♦ Two-thirds of the members who were food insecure in 2018 were in the grades of E-4 to E-6. Of those who were food insecure, 21% were in the grades of E-1 to E-3. Yet the percentage of the force that was determined to be food secure included just 14% of junior enlisted.

♦ 40% of those who were food insecure in 2018 were in the Army, the largest service; 26% in the Navy; 18% in the Air Force; 14% in the Marine Corps and 3% in the Coast Guard.

♦ 14% of service members identified as being food insecure had used food assistance programs in 2018; 5% of service members who weren’t food insecure used any form of food assistance.

Food insecurity — at a glance

The chart below compares characteristics between the 25.8% of service members who were food insecure in 2018, and the remaining members who were food secure.

CharacteristicsFood Insecure Military PopulationFood Secure Military Population
E-1 — E-321%14%
E-4 — E-667%50%
Receiving Basic Allowance for Housing81%80%
Racial or ethnic minority50%43%
Average age26.329.1
Single with children5%4%
Single without children37%39%
Married with children37%39%
Married without children21%19%
Average number of dependents1.51.5
Source: Rand Corp. analysis of 2018 DoD survey of active duty troops

Researchers analyzed data from DoD’s 2016 and 2018 Surveys of Active Duty Personnel. Those surveys, using scientific sampling methods, are designed to be representative of active duty members. In 2016, 2018 and 2020, the DoD survey included questions about military members’ food security and their use of food assistance programs. Data was not yet available from the 2020 survey, but the data from the 2016 and 2018 surveys had the advantage of providing information from before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers noted. The pandemic has had a variety of effects on the availability of food.

The financial picture

Findings related to the financial situation of food insecure service members present a complicated picture.

A high percentage of food insecure service members — 69% — reported having savings for emergency expenses, although it was generally savings for three or fewer months. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have financial difficulties, it’s just that there are multiple themes going on,” Asch said.

But the findings do raise the question for researchers as to why the emergency buffer hasn’t alleviated food insecurity for these service members.

About 29% of food insecure service members reported being “very comfortable and secure” financially or “able to make ends meet without much difficulty.” It is unclear, then, why they report being food insecure.

Of the remaining 71 percent who are experiencing discomfort about their financial situation, about two-thirds reported their difficulties were “occasional” versus “tough” or “in over your head.”

“The high proportion of those with ‘occasional’ difficulties suggests that although some food insecure members are clearly in a dire or tough situation, a significant fraction have less frequent problems with food,” researchers noted.

Although service members were concerned that seeking help for food insecurity, or general financial problems, would negatively affect their security clearances, only 1.8% of food insecure and 0.9% of food secure service members reported that their security clearance was affected by their financial situation in 2018, researchers found.

While permanent change of station moves have been linked to food insecurity, the researchers didn’t find a positive connection. “Food insecure members were actually less likely to report ever having made a PCS move,” they stated.

But chronic issues mentioned in discussions included financial mismanagement, lack of financial literacy, chronic spouse unemployment, and providing support for extended family outside the household. Those who were food insecure were more likely to have recently provided unplanned financial support to extended family members.

Basic Allowance for Housing

The Basic Allowance for Housing has been a central issue for many advocates, who contend that this allowance shouldn’t be counted as income in determining eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because it excludes most service members.

But the Rand analysis showed that the food insecurity rate was higher among service members who lived on the installation — 30% compared to 23% for those living outside the gates. About three out of four service members living on post reported receiving BAH, and the rate of food insecurity among that group was higher, at 32%, than for those living off post who received BAH, 23%.

“The reason for this difference is unclear, but the result is somewhat surprising given that those living on post and receiving BAH likely had lower transportation costs and were closer to the commissary; thus, we would expect their expenditures to be lower and their resources for food to be higher,” researchers noted in the report.

Most people living on base live in privatized housing, and their entire BAH goes to their landlord. Some military families have raised questions about the recent increases in Basic Allowance for Housing, noting it financially helps those who live off the installation, but doesn’t financially help those who live in privatized housing on the installation, because it goes directly to the landlord.

Researchers weren’t able to drill down into those reasons, Asch said, and weren’t able to make comparisons for service members living in comparable housing off post.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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