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By Keith Tidball, Ph.D.


Nearly 25% of active-duty military families face food security challenges. (1) Service members and their families may experience circumstances such as limited income, high cost of living, and financial commitments that increase their likelihood of being food insecure. For some lower-ranking active-duty service members who earn below $40,000 annually, it can strain food budgets while trying to support a family. Additionally, many active-duty families are not able to choose where they are stationed and may end up located in an area with a high cost of living. In these situations, housing benefits may not adequately cover their expenses. Furthermore, service members or their partners may also have outstanding financial commitments such as loans or other monthly payments.

During the 2018-2019 school year, one-third of students attending Department of Defense schools met eligibility criteria for free or reduced-price meals.1 Although many military families experience food insecurity, few qualify for federal food assistance programs. Part of the reason for this is that basic allowance for housing (BAH) is often counted as household income. The USDA reports that 2% of active-duty service members qualify for SNAP benefits, however, nearly 7% are not food secure. (2)

While food pantries are open to anyone in need, some food banks near military installations have targeted programs to ensure service members have adequate sustenance. Many organizations offer pantry locations or pop-ups near bases, draw on community connections with partners serving military families, and advocate for policy changes to better support service members and families. However, one area that food bank networks could significantly leverage is the acquisition and distribution of wild game meat for food-insecure military members and their families.

Game Meat and Food Donation Programs

Hunters across the country donate deer and elk to help feed the food insecure. Farmers also donate deer harvested using special permits to help prevent damage to their crops. Farmers can also donate livestock. Donated deer, elk, and livestock are professionally processed at a discounted rate by an approved local butcher.

Meat is often one of the most needed – but most expensive – items for a food bank. With public support, not-for-profit organizations pay the meat processing bills so donors and recipients can participate free of charge. A number of states also invite hunters to donate money when purchasing their licenses to cover the cost of processing. Once processed, food pantries and soup kitchens may pick up and distribute the nutritious meat to those who need it. On average, 50 pounds of meat can be taken off of a deer. If ground and used in spaghetti or chili, one deer can feed 200 people at $0.25/per serving. (3)

Find a harvest resource near your installation

Moving Forward

Pentagon leadership, elected officials, and food security advocates have numerous and unique opportunities to enhance and modernize the historical role of hunters as food providers by supporting legislation, educational opportunities, and community programs which make providing game meat to food-insecure military family members a more streamlined process. To counter the administrative costs associated with these programs, decision-makers are urged to explore potential funding sources to cover processing costs which will further enhance the ability of these game meat provisioning organizations to provide meals for military families. A partnership between the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Interior could provide additional “command emphasis” on this important issue, and develop a campaign to address food insecurity among our nation’s service members and their families while beneficially managing our wildlife and fisheries resources.


1 Three Facts You Should Know about Military Hunger, Feeding America. 


3 Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation

about the author

Keith Tidball is a Cornell University Senior Extension Associate and serves as the Principal Investigator for the Community Capacity Building concentration area.