JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Courage, strength and sacrifice: It's what men and woman in our military and their families pride themselves on, but what an increasing number of them aren't so proud of is what they have to do to feed their families. Food stamp usage among military families has more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2010, according to statistics released by the Defense Commissary Agency.
"Food stamp wise, there's a lot of people on them, that are actually on them, and it was comforting knowing that I wasn't the only person in line at the commissary swiping my EBT card. And someone else said, 'Hey I understand, it got rough,'" said Lindsey, whose husband deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lindsey, who only wants to use her first name, says even at her husband's E4 Army ranking, her family couldn't make ends meet. She wasn't working, but instead, caring for her 4-year-old daughter with special needs. In 2008, the family was paying for food, shelter and growing medical bills on roughly $25,000 a year. At the time, that qualified her family fo
r food stamps. Lindsey says she couldn't get a job, because she would not make enough to cover the cost of child care.
"Financially, a lot of people look down on it, a lot of people think that the military has a lot of money, you shouldn't be struggling this and that. But there are a lot of families that have children that have health issues, and those health issues are what you're having to pay for, what the military won't pick up," she explained.
By the numbers, in 2010, 19,000 military families relied on the federal government's SNAP program for food. In 2011, nearly 21,000 military families used food stamps. And in 2012 and 2013, more than 22,000.
In 2013, $103 million was spent in commissaries, or grocery stores at military facilities. And just last year, a decrease, but still $84 million was spent.
It can change year to year but in 2015, in order to qualify for federal assistance, a family with two children, must make less than $20,000 a year. Compare that to newly enlisted military pay. An E1 makes roughly $18,500 a year. Many say, if they're single, they can survive on that salary alone by eating on base or getting help with housing. But according to military experts, the face of new enlisted recruits has changed. Those headed off to boot camp are no longer 18 years old and single.
"Today, I think our younger military members when they come in in many cases, are married, with family members, and have challenges to meet the basic needs, which may include a cell phone now, may include a car, may include other tangible things that we once thought were necessary but now are necessary," said retired Navy R
ear Admiral Victor Guillory.
Guillory also points out that some recruits sign up later in life, and often times leave their civilian jobs behind. This transition presents a financial struggle, but only for the few years, because military pay jumps substantially, as the men and women are promoted. He says he personally saw families struggling financially while working for the City of Jacksonville as the Director of Military Affairs.
"Even one family is one to many, and I don't think our nation will tolerate a military member living in a situation where they can't meet the basic needs of their family," said Guillory. "Something has to be done at the federal level and even in communities like Jacksonville, Florida with faith-based organizations and other assistance programs."
To most, Guillory says the financial challenges military families face are invisible. But for agencies like Navy-Marine Corp Relief Society (NMCRS), they encourage transparency.
"If someone joins the military at an older age and already has multiple dependents, that subset may qualify for food stamps," added Monika Woods with NMCR
Woods says there aren't as many members of the military on food stamps in Jacksonville because both NAS Jax, and Mayport are bases for E2 ranked personnel and up. She says the scenario is different in Hawaii or California where the cost of living is higher. She says regardless the military can never pay their men and women enough for what they are ultimately prepared to sacrifice.
"They do put their life on the line, and not only that but they are gone from their family living on a ship or a sub, working 24/7, miss Christmas, birthdays, miss family," she said. "What really can you pay for someone to give up that, or be on the front lines and live in desert on the front line? What really is the price tag for that?"
There are a number of groups and resources available to families that may need help including:
- Navy-Marine Corp Relief Society
- Wounded Warrior Project
- Operation Homefront
- USA Cares
- Jacksonville Military Affairs Office
- Military One Source
- Salute Inc.
- Jacksonville Military Veterans Partnership
- Feeding Northeast Florida
Since the promotion for this story started airing on News4Jax, we've heard from a lot of families who are on food stamps. They tell us they are educated and they work hard - but still can't make ends meet. Some wanted to point out they have no shame and appreciate the assistance they are getting to help feed their families.