Spotlight Exclusives

One in Eight Military Families Have Used Food Banks to Provide Needed Nutrition

Catherine O'Neal Catherine O'Neal, posted on

Food insecurity among military families is a longstanding concern, with research showing the issue impacts as much as 25 percent of active-duty families. A new study from the University of Georgia adds new texture to bipartisan discussions about potential solutions, finding that approximately one in eight military families with at least one child reported using a food bank, pantries or other charitable food distribution resources in 2021. Army families were 131% more likely to use a food bank than Air Force families. Lower-ranking service members were more likely to use food distribution resources than higher-ranking individuals. And Asian, Black and multiracial families were about 50% more likely to use food distribution services than white familiesThe study’s lead author, UGA Assistant Professor Catherine O’Neal, spoke with Spotlight recently about the results. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you give some background on your research in this area?

Broadly, my research interest is military families, and my work is very translational. I do a lot of applied research, a lot of program evaluation with the military for some of their family life education programs. We do work with policy makers, helping them understand the research that’s out there because there’s a good bit of research on military families, and thinking through how we can use that to inform policy. I have done some work with the National Military Family Association, and they had this data set from a project they had done, and they were really interested in what researchers would be interested in hearing about from this.

And so, when I looked through the data set, they had this question about food resource utilization, and it really caught our interest. I thought it was a value-add because food insecurity for military families has been a hot topic in the past couple of years, but we know less about who is utilizing resources that are out there. This was an opportunity to kind of explore how many families are using food resource services and can we identify which ones are more likely to, to use the services? We found that that about 13% of the families in our sample had utilized the resources at least once in the past year. This does not mean they’re relying on them daily. And then we were able to look at demographic characteristics of who was more likely to use them—differences by service or by rank or race and ethnicity. That just gives us a little better insight into who knows about these resources and is taking advantage of them.

And was that overall number surprising to you? Was it higher than you thought it would be? I know there’s been other research done.

That’s a good question. I really didn’t want to speculate going into it. As you mentioned, there has been other research and there was a really timely report just earlier this year that found almost the exact same number that we did. So, in some ways, that made me feel confident about the number that we found. This wasn’t an over-exaggeration or under-exaggeration. The number seems to be on track with what other studies are finding.

And just talk a little bit about some of the demographic differences and who are the groups that are more likely to take advantage of these services? And is it driven more by demographics or by service rank?

One of the things that we found was that Army families were more likely to utilize services than Air Force families. We also found that single-earner families—families where the service member was the only adult employed in the household—were more likely to utilize services, which makes sense, right? With a dual-earner family, you would likely have a higher income level. And for military families, that connects back to challenges with spouse employment and underemployment, so those findings continue to highlight the need. When military families want to be a dual-earner family, any efforts that can make that possible for them is likely to reduce their chances of food insecurity and food resource utilization.

We also found some racial differences, in that racial minorities were more likely to use these services. There are two possibilities there—is this who knows about the services and feels comfortable using them or are these the people who are at the greatest need? Maybe it’s both, but those two things don’t always necessarily go together. One thing we think about is that these findings might also relate to stigma and who feels less stigma to utilize services. That’s another possibility.

And was there any indication why more Army families were utilizing these services? Is the Army doing anything different in terms of letting people know about how to access them?

That’s another possibility. There is also some research that finds Army families are more likely to be single-earner families and are more likely to have more children, and that might equate to a greater need. There are so many factors in play—answering one research question leads to many more.

We’ve done some stories on the issue of many of these families not being eligible for SNAP because of problems with the military basic allowance.  I’m assuming you have no way of knowing how many of these families actually might be able to use SNAP benefits, but I’m guessing it’s probably pretty substantial?

That is a great point that we’re aware of, but we don’t have any data, or we didn’t in this study to point to.

in terms of this data pointing to potential solutions, what are some of the things that either you’re interested in or the organization that you did the study for is interested in?

Thank you for that question because one of my passions is what do we do with the research and I am a big believer in whatever the answer is has to come at multiple levels. I think we have to think at the individual level of connecting people who need the resources to the resources. Food resource utilization isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it signals there’s a need to be met. So, I think that’s one thing—getting the word out there at the unit level, making sure unit leaders are aware of who might need the resource and that they can serve as a connector to connect people to resources.

At the policy level, there’s ongoing efforts to think about SNAP and benefits, but also to think about the Basic Allowance for Housing and how we continue to ensure that our service members financially have their needs met. The spousal employment issue is another one that’s obviously at a higher policy level. So, I think there are implications for how do we address this at multiple levels.

I know spousal employment is a huge, huge issue that I know plays into this.

It makes a lot of sense when you’re moving so much, it would be hard to maintain steady employment. I’m sure you know this too, but it’s not just the unemployment part, but also the under-employment when you have certifications, and you end up taking a job that pays considerably less than what you could work your way up to doing if you were able to stay in a single place.

And in terms of time frame, what time period does this cover?

This study was in the spring of 2021, and this was when these families were applying for child care aid that was available for military families. So, they were seeking out resources of one form of funding for child care related to the COVID pandemic. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do this, as there had been previous research prior to COVID and we were curious what the percentages would look like during COVID. But it was roughly the same.

In some of our other work, we’ve done a lot of financial program evaluation and we’ve heard lots of different stories about how Americans have financially been impacted by the pandemic. In some ways they spent less money because they were not traveling or eating out. In other ways, they spent more money, and that spouse may have lost a job. So, I think the stability potentially in the rates just kind of reflects that some fared better and some fared worse. And so, we see a steady line.

And then finally, are you planning any follow-up work?

For my colleagues and I who I did the study, military family research is our passion. So, we always have studies going on. We’re doing a study right now of couples, looking at data from both partners and financial wellbeing and also mental health and physical health. For this specific data set, we have some other items about utilization of other resources like mental health programming, for instance. With such a large sample and across the U.S., we’re excited to dig into some similar prevalence and utilization studies separate from food resource utilization.

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