SAN DIEGO – Dozens of people have been waiting in line at Dewey Elementary School recently this Monday, waiting for the arrival of a San Diego Feeding Truck that is distributing supplies. free every two weeks.
The vast majority of them were not homeless or even newly unemployed. These are the husbands and wives of US servicemen.
"I knew we would not be rich, but I thought it would be much easier to manage," said Désirée Mieir, a mother of four whose last deployment of her husband to the Navy lasted nearly eight months.
Mieir can not afford the cable and often leaves the air conditioning in his home closed in order to reduce his electricity bill. "I did not know that I should be doing so much," she said.
To make ends meet, Mieir and thousands of other military families across the country routinely resort to federal food aid, charity or family loans. Their difficulties are caused by a number of factors: the high cost of living in cities like San Diego, the difficulty of receiving federal food aid, and a short-lived life that makes it difficult for spouses.
It is difficult to quantify the full extent of the problem. The Ministry of Defense does not collect data on the number of service members who request food aid. However, interviews with dozens of members of military families, as well as visits to makeshift convenience stores such as Dewey Elementary, indicate that the number of military families struggling to feed themselves is considerable.
The Pentagon archives obtained by NBC News through an application of the Freedom of Information Act give only an idea of the problem. Data show that during the 2018-2019 school year, one-third of DOD-run school children located on military bases in the United States – more than 6,500 children – were eligible for free or reduced meal. In Georgia at Fort Stewart, 65% were eligible.
"I think it's a national scandal," said Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill, a former army helicopter pilot. "Can you imagine being deployed and you are in the Persian Gulf, or you are in Iraq right now, and are you worried that your children might or might not have a meal?"
"We should say that if you come into the army, your kids will get a good education, you will have good housing, and your kids will be fed," Duckworth added.
She and her representative Susan Davis, D-Calif., Were working on a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that would help increase the income of some members of the services whose base salary is near or below at the poverty line.
During a recent visit to the improvised Dewey Elementary Pantry, Melissa Carlisle, a mother of two whose husband is a military man, picked up a sack of potatoes that she plans to smear on three different meals. and freeze the rest for later.
"They have the military illusion that we roll in the dough, but that's not the case," Carlisle said. "… we are really fine with the little money we get.
Almost all people who shop at the San Diego Feeding Pantry at Dewey Elementary are military and everything is free. Carlisle and the other spouses of the military are therefore lining up to fill their bags with fresh produce, snacks for children and staple foods like flour. and bread.
In a school where nearly 80% of students are active military children and more than 70% are entitled to a free and reduced meal, free bicycles often make the difference between having trouble paying bills or just be hungry. .
When she does not receive free food from San Diego Feeding, Carlisle makes her purchases at the tax-free military precinct, or at Ralph, a grocery store in San Diego, where food purchases bring her points back. She will be able to use it later to make fuel. "You do not have to decide, do I need gasoline or food?"
But Carlisle said that even with help, the simple act of getting out of it is a constant concern.
"I would not say that check, but rather tight.If you sneeze hard, a flat tire falls, that's all," she said.
Enrolled lower-ranked members in all branches, those whose pay grades range from E-1 to E-5, earn between $ 18,648 and $ 40,759 in basic salary, depending on their rank and years of service. This does not include their housing and food allowances, nor special compensation such as a combat allowance.
But the housing allowance, which can vary greatly depending on the military's place of residence, is often enough to push a family out of the range of eligibility for federal food assistance.
Nevertheless, in 2017, data from an annual Census Bureau survey showed that more than 16,000 active service members were receiving food stamps, called SNAPs.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office released a report recommending that the DOD begin to track data on the use by service members and their families of food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC, but the Help groups and lawmakers are wondering if the DOD collects useful data.
"They do not even have enough information on the number of people affected," said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at Mazon: a Jewish response to hunger. This is a problem, said Protas, whose group is a leader in research on hunger in the military because without accurate data on the number of families affected, it is difficult for policy makers to tackle the problem. Mazon worked with legislators to develop legislation that would reduce the burden on lower-tier members.
"We found that there was a pantry on or near almost all the military bases in the country, and nothing wrong with going to a pantry when you need some help. 39, urgency, "said Protas," but there is no reason that those who serve in the armed forces should do it regularly. "
"I think for the DOD, it's a public relations problem," he said. "They would prefer that the problem go away or be solved quietly.Unfortunately for families in trouble, ignoring the problem will not help their situation."
The Under Secretary for Personnel and Preparedness at the Pentagon is the department's leading advisor on compensation, benefits, recruitment and morale. He also oversees the agency that runs the schools on military bases. This post is vacant since former Under Secretary of State Robert Wilkie. left to lead the VA a year ago. President Donald Trump has not named a successor.
NBC News has repeatedly asked for an interview with Acting Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, James Stewart, but has been told that it was not available. Instead, a DOD spokesperson sent NBC News an email stating that the problem of food insecurity in the military was "minimal", that "the military is getting very well paid" , that there is a subsidized grocery store on each base and that service members can take advantage of the "financial literacy training" provided by the military.
Desiree Mieir told NBC that it was hard to imagine how she could possibly plan and save more than she already does. "My husband and I took advantage of the resources available and met with financial advisors from Fleet and Family Services," said Mieir. "We did this work and we communicate."
Duckworth said it was unfair to compare military families, who usually have a single income, to the average, double-income, American family. Often one spouse follows the other basic based, said Duckworth, "and this spouse who follows can not develop her career … They are at a disadvantage and say," Yeah, well, she stays at home. she should just do better with her budget, you know, it's really insulting. "
The Department of Defense emphasizes that military members receive, in addition to their basic salary, a housing allowance and a food allowance, called Basic Living Allowance (BAS), as part of their compensation, but 2018. A survey conducted by Blue Star Families, a support group for military families, the majority of respondents spent hundreds of their own money on housing that was right for them.
Desiree Mieir is a stay-at-home mom. With four children under 10 years old and one child not yet in school, like many young military families, the Mieirs estimated that they would pay more for childcare than they would bring Desiree into the market. work.
Dan Mieir, her husband, is a Naval Communications Officer earning $ 34,279 in pre-tax base salary. It's just below the federal poverty line for a family of six in most of the country. To qualify for SNAP at the national level, your salary can not exceed 130% of the poverty line, although some states are more generous, like California, where the Mieirs live. The Mieirs would qualify on the basis of the California threshold – but their housing allowance, which counts as revenue in SNAP applications, pushes them above the limit and makes them ineligible.
Representatives Davis and Duckworth sponsored a bill in the House and Senate to prevent the basic housing allowance from being counted as part of the total income of food aid applications, but their bills are frozen in two rooms.
The food allowance, called BAS, that military servicemen receive is about $ 360 a month, but this amount is for the single member and not his family. Therefore, unlike the housing allowance, it does not increase if one has dependents. . The money is also withdrawn when a member of the service is deployed.
The BAS is expected to increase slightly each year to keep up with inflation and changes in food costs, but for the fourth year in a row, food allowances have increased by less than 1%.
Crystal Ellison, a former Navy Fire Marshal, said her family had used her BAS to pay her bills.
Ellison spent most of his 13 years in the Navy managing complex weapons systems and powerful radar. She had to rely on loans from her in-laws to feed her family. "I thought it was embarrassing, I felt like, you should be able to support your family and not support someone else." That's what you it's supposed to make it into adulthood, "said Ellison.
Ellison grew up in a military family and dreamed of joining the Navy, but for years, as she was working her way through the lower ranks, she quietly tried to feed her family.
"It was difficult … Especially as a junior sailor, you do not win much money," Ellison said. "So, if you do not have enough money saved, you're definitely in the injured locker."
The Department of Defense has told us that service members do more than just civilians with comparable training and experience, but Ellison said his departure from the navy was his first financial security. "The work I had [in the Navy] I made it very marketable. I work for a large semiconductor company here in Arizona. It certainly pays a lot more. "
Ellison is now in the private sector and is no longer fighting financially, but she hoped that more Americans would know that food insecurity in the lower ranks of the military was a problem. "We give 100% to the country, and the country does not make it."
"We are willing to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on a combat aircraft – which I want our troops to own – to transport it to combat," Duckworth said. "But if the people who work there can not focus on the maintenance of the keys and the maintenance of the equipment, because they fear that their children are hungry or not, what is the point of it? to have this fighter plane? "