Summer Struggle: Military Families and Food Insecurity

Written by Poli Dimitrova

Summer should be a fun time, but for many military families, it brings extra stress about food. Research from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that getting enough healthy food is a huge problem for our troops. In fact, 24% of active duty members experienced food insecurity in 2020. This shows we need more programs to help those who serve us.

When kids are out of school for the summer, they miss out on school meals, and their families have to find ways to feed them three times a day. This can make it harder for families to afford all the meals they need. If this sounds like something you have experienced, you are not alone. Let’s look into what food insecurity means and what help is available.

Understanding Military Food Insecurity

Let’s first clarify what food insecurity is, as it is often misunderstood. It is not just about hunger, which is the physical feeling of needing food. Food insecurity means not having consistent access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. According to the USDA (2021), a family can experience food insecurity even if they are not hungry, especially if they lack variety and quality in their diet, despite having enough food to eat.

Ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food is crucial for the health and well-being of all families. This challenge is often greater for military families compared to civilian households. But why is this the case?


Causes of Military Food Insecurity

While each family’s situation is unique and different, there are a few risk factors for military families. One of the biggest reasons to experience food insecurity is financial struggle due to low pay and insufficient funds to cover all expenses, including food. Moreover, many active duty members have a few dependents to take care of. Military spouses are often unemployed (21% in 2021) due to frequent relocations, difficulties in finding a job, and the high cost of childcare.

Military bases are typically located in high-living cost areas with limited housing availability. Managing a household on a single income while dealing with costs like rent, utilities, groceries, and gas, military families often need to budget every dollar carefully. As some of these expenses are fixed and impossible to change, they are left with no other option but to cut on groceries. Summer is even more challenging for families with kids out of school. Military kids on free and reduced lunch programs do not have a reliable source of nutritious meals during the summer break. This is the reality for many military households.

Food security scale showing percentage of all active duty spouses

Source: Office of People Analytics (OPA) – 2021 Active Duty Spouse Survey (ADSS) 


ASYMCA Food Assistance Programs for Military Families

The Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) recognizes the problems faced by military families struggling with food insecurity and actively works to address them. In 2022, their food assistance program distributed 2 million pounds of food to 67,000 families. marking an incredible 29% increase from the previous year. Depending on where you live, you can access various types of food assistance or military food pantries available to you.

ASYMCA Military Food Pantries


My Personal Experience with ASYMCA Resources

As someone located at Camp Pendleton, California, we have been fortunate to benefit from the incredible services provided by the ASYMCA! When we first moved here almost three years ago, I was still working on obtaining a green card and work authorization as a foreign national military spouse. Living on one income, especially in the extremely expensive San Diego county, quickly became a hurdle.

Just a few months later, we found out we were expecting our first child. While we were excited and overjoyed, the financial side of preparing for a baby was constantly on our minds. During my pregnancy, we had to budget very carefully and put aside a little bit each month in preparation for our little bundle of joy. It was much later that I discovered one of the services provided by ASYMCA Camp Pendleton – The Neighborhood Exchange.

Once a month, ASYMCA Camp Pendleton hosts a food and diaper drive-thru distribution event. The first time I attended, I was pleasantly surprised that they provided us with fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as a bag of frozen chicken. Other military food banks would offer only canned goods, however, the ASYMCA goes a step further to ensure families have access to a wider and healthier variety of meals. Having a baby also requires a lot of diapers, but we have been lucky to get two packs in his current size every time. Some months, we also receive other items, such as cleaning supplies or kids’ books, one of which has become my son’s favorite.

The Neighborhood Exchange is an incredible resource in fighting military food insecurity at Camp Pendleton. It is always astonishing to see the line of cars patiently waiting for their turn, realizing the incredible impact that the ASYMCA has on our local community. For us, it has made a significant difference to our monthly budget, and it is always such a pleasure to see the smiles and positive attitude of all volunteers. The only thing we could say is a BIG THANK YOU to the ASYMCA for all their continuous efforts to improve the lives of military families!


Support Military Families This Summer with ASYMCA

The ASYMCA is not just an organization; it’s a vital lifeline for families like mine. In times of uncertainty and financial strain, their programs provide not just material aid, but also a sense of stability and community. As we continue to navigate the challenges of military life, their support is indispensable. Let’s help the ASYMCA continue its mission to assist more families in need. This summer, help ASYMCA support even more families as they struggle to provide nutritious meals for their children.