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Research Question

  1. What are the levels and distribution of food insecurity among members of the armed forces?

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 directed the Secretary of Defense to report on food insecurity among members of the armed forces and their dependents. The directive includes the following elements: an assessment of the current extent of food insecurity among not only service members and their dependents but also those living on post and presumably not receiving the basic allowance for housing (BAH); participation in food assistance programs; barriers to accessing this assistance; a description of other sources of income to meet basic needs; an assessment of the feasibility and advisability of a basic needs allowance (BNA) for low-income members; and three sets of recommendations (for policies, programs, and activities) to address food insecurity among military families. RAND researchers examined these elements and developed answers, along with listing areas requiring additional analysis.

Key Findings

Members who were food insecure varied in the extent of their food insecurity

  • Approximately 15.4 percent of all active duty personnel would be classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having low food security in 2018. Another 10.4 percent would be classified as having very low food security.
  • Food insecurity was higher among those living on post.
  • Of those classified as food insecure in 2018, 14 percent reported using food assistance in the past year.

Reported barriers to program use varied

  • Stakeholders reported in interviews that service members are concerned that seeking help could negatively affect their career or security clearance.
  • Eligibility was also mentioned as a barrier to participation.

Food insecurity in the military is of a heterogeneous nature

  • Food insecure members were more likely to report having a second job or a spouse with a part-time job.
  • A high share of food insecure members (69 percent) reported having savings for emergency expenses.
  • Some 29 percent of food insecure members reported being "very comfortable and secure" or "able to make ends meet without much difficulty."
  • Of the remaining 71 percent, nearly two-thirds reported that their difficulties were "occasional" versus "tough" or "in over your head."

Congress requested an assessment of a monthly basic needs allowance (BNA) that would bring members' household income to 130 percent of the federal poverty line

  • The monthly BNA to bring members to that level would need to be between $300 and $415.
  • Stakeholders disagreed on how much a BNA would help food insecurity.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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