All signs seem to point toward satiety. An easy glance at the data shows Americans are going to bed each night with full bellies and whetted appetites. Our obesity rate is climbing — among both adults and adolescents — which has to mean we’re eating. Americans, it would seem, are doing many things, but going hungry is not one of them.
Unfortunately, here may be a case where the numbers do lie, or at least conceal. Take the Food Security Index, a measure of global access to food, broken down by country. The United States ranks first. Our food is the most affordable and available, and it ranks fifth in quality and safety. Last year, the anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam released research that showed the U.S. ranks 21st out of 125 countries in healthy eating. So how come, with all this food inside our borders, are so many families going hungry?
“We’ve heard for the last several years from our food banks that there’s a growing need among military families for food assistance,” said Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit food bank network, to NBC News.
On Monday, Feeding America released its 2014 survey of food insecurity among military veterans and their families. The survey found 25 percent of military personnel, or at least one person in 620,000 households, active duty and reserve status, is seeking aid from food pantries and other charitable programs across the country. Another 2.37 million households, including veterans, receive aid from Feeding America’s network.
We may be food secure, but only in the aggregate. Just as the gulf between the richest and poorest Americans has widened over the preceding decades, food security has run in parallel. We have vast amounts of food, but access tilts heavily toward the side of the dollar signs. Food that nourishes isn’t cheap and doesn’t keep. The foods that stay fresh — or at least don’t spoil — are the ones packed with preservatives like sugar and salt, and offer maximal calories with few nutrients.
"Food is very, very cheap in the U.S. compared to most countries," explained Max Lawson, Head of Global Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam, to NPR. "But the fact is you end up with people malnourished in one of the richest countries because they don't have access to fresh vegetables at a cheap enough price to make a balanced diet."
Financial security lies at the root of this problem, as eking out a decent living in the military takes a lifetime of service. And even then, there are no guarantees. This year’s figures for the Department of Defense’s pay grade show a newly enlisted soldier will earn $18,000 for her service at the outset. Nearly two decades down the road, after the soldier has sunk a quarter of her life into defending the country’s freedom, her salary will still hover around $65,000 a year.
For many families, tax-free allowances for housing, clothing, and food do little more than stop the bleeding. After the basics have been covered, there are still the matters of covering the costs of rent, utilities, medicine, and whatever additional food the family needs to survive. Too often, they are forced to sacrifice one for another.
“You're robbing Peter to pay Paul most of the time,” said Lindsey Yetter, a teaching assistant at a preschool, to NBC News. Yetter’s husband, Adam, is a Petty Officer 1st Class in the U.S. Navy and has been serving for the last 17 years. Along with their three sons, the Yetters recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment and share it with another Navy family that includes two sons of its own. The Yetters have become incessant coupon clippers, regular recyclers, and Adam Yetter has made it a bi-weekly habit to donate plasma at the local blood bank.
The family’s situation is a prime example of the limits of federal aid. After 17 years of service, Yetter makes $75,000 a year. According to a study released in March by the Center on Policy Initiatives, even if the Yetters were to drop in size from five family members to four, estimates still suggest they’d need an extra $10,000 a year to stay afloat. Side- and odd-jobs are built-in to the lifestyle.
“It's hard to find different ways and tricks. And everyone's always looking,” Lindsey Yetter said. “At military handouts the lines are long. People are selling things or working from home. I'd say the majority of military families are always trying to find another source of income.”
In the meantime, while both heads of the Yetter household struggle to find more stable sources of income, Lindsey Yetter reassures her sons, ages 6, 8, and 10, that bouncing from apartment to apartment is just a “temporary adventure, hopefully.”
For now, she at least has the benefit of age. Kids relish in what’s new, but the “hopefully” she adds to the adventure’s transience seems to imply that newness could expire. For this one military family, like the rest of the military families who are forced to sacrifice precious moments enjoying life to keep from drowning, time could be running out.