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The U.S. military has a food insecurity problem

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many Americans pull up a chair for a Thanksgiving feast today. Some who serve in the United States military may be struggling to pay for the food on the table. That may include somebody listening now - we've got a lot of people in the military who listen. Advocacy groups looked into this and estimated that about 160,000 military service members have trouble feeding their families. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke about this a week ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about. Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn't be among them.

INSKEEP: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is on this story. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And happy Thanksgiving to you. How much of the military is 160,000 people and their families?

BOWMAN: Well, it accounts for about 14% of the U.S. military, Steve, and roughly one-third of junior enlisted ranks, so the privates and corporals. And it seems to be getting a bit worse. COVID's it's a big reason - many troops live off base and, as you know, rents have started going up during the pandemic. And also during the pandemic, there were a lot of job losses, so a spouse losing or having trouble finding work meant you had one-income family trying to make ends meet.

INSKEEP: Yeah. One income, that could be $21,000 dollars if you're a private. Even if you're a sergeant with years of experience, it might be $40,000, which is enough in some parts of the country, not nearly enough in other parts of the country. So what does the military plan to do about this?

BOWMAN: Well, Secretary Austin has said he will temporarily increase the housing allowance troops get in more than 50 high-cost areas around the country to help troops make ends meet. We talked about that housing issue with Colonel Scott Pence. He's the garrison commander at Fort Bragg, N.C. Let's listen.

SCOTT PENCE: It's toughest in those parts of the country that are high-income - the Navy station in San Diego, our Joint Base Lewis-McChord right outside of Seattle. They deal with different problems that we at Fort Bragg right outside of Fayetteville, N.C., don't deal with at such a high level. But we're also seeing rent levels go through the roof off-post during this summer, which is forcing people into some short-term food insecurity situations.

BOWMAN: And Secretary Austin also said in places with housing shortages the Pentagon will extend temporary lodging expense reimbursements, so families who are moving from one base to another will have a little more time to find a home. He wants also to make sure local commanders are keeping an eye on service members - do they need the food bank or just basic help with family finances? Remember, these are mostly very young service members in their first job. And then he's also looking in the long term. He wants Pentagon officials to develop what he calls a road map to strengthen food security, and he wants answers in 90 days.

INSKEEP: Is it hard for service families to keep those two jobs that a lot of families need to pay all the bills?

BOWMAN: You know, it is because, of course, families - military families move every three years, so for so short a period, it's hard for a spouse, let's say, to get a job and then keep a decent job. Secretary Austin is talking about extending a service member's time at a base to provide a little more stability.

INSKEEP: What does Congress intend to do about this, if anything?

BOWMAN: Well, service members who are struggling financially will likely see some help from Congress this year. There are amendments in the defense bills of both Houses that will provide assistance to troops creating a basic needs allowance for those families who are struggling the most, Steve.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.