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By Noelle Harden

I recently talked with my mom and grandparents about hunger and food insecurity in the military. My grandpa served in the Air Force, then worked for the Veterans Administration. My mom spent her childhood moving across the country from base to base. They shared their struggles to be able to afford healthy and affordable food.

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Food Insecurity in the Military

The RAND Corporation released a report last month on food security in the military. They found that 15.4% of active duty personnel in 2018 met the USDA definition of having low food security, and another 10% reported having very low food security. Only 14% of these individuals said that they used food assistance programs (such as SNAP, WIC, or food banks) in the last year. 

The report echoes the stories that my family shared about the stigma and shame of food insecurity in the military. Service members reported being afraid to get help. They feared that doing so would negatively impact their career or their security clearance. Others found they didn’t qualify for support programs or couldn’t access services (i.e., limited hours and locations of food banks).

Food insecurity is about not having the resources to pay for food. The report raised questions about how the military lifestyle may lead to food insecurity. Service members are three times more likely to experience food insecurity than their civilian counterparts making a comparable income. 

  • Is food insecurity related to the income of military spouses or by frequent changes in pay often experienced by active duty personnel? 
  • Do military families borrow from or lend money to family and friends instead of using formal programs like SNAP or WIC? 
  • How do the cost of living, education level, and spending and saving habits contribute to food insecurity in the military? 

These questions show how the problem occurs at an individual level and in the military lifestyle. 

What is Nutrition Insecurity?

The problem’s scope widens when we shift the conversation from food insecurity to nutrition insecurity. Food security is about people having enough food, while nutrition security is about having the right food (i.e., food that nourishes us physically, mentally, culturally, and spiritually). 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 19% of active-duty service members were obese in 2020. These service members may be less likely to be medically ready for deployment. 

Food security and nutrition security are connected but distinct challenges within the military and society. Policies, organizations, cultural norms, societal pressures, and community resources influence individual food choices. Nutrition insecurity occurs both when money is tight and when it is not. 

Let’s Start With a Conversation About Nutrition Security

We can slowly break down the stigma of both food and nutrition insecurity by simply talking about this issue with compassion and without judgment, friend to friend or colleague to colleague. When military leaders join the conversation, the fear and shame of using food assistance programs can dissipate even faster. 

I will facilitate a conversation about nutrition security for military families on May 24th through OneOp. We will explore ideas and unpack assumptions about nutrition security and create a list of possible solutions, from the individual level to public policy. The Spectrum of Prevention framework will help us move from analyzing the problem to taking action. 

Whether you think about food and nutrition security daily or this is your first time, we invite you to join the conversation. RSVP for the May 24th webinar, Supporting Nutrition Security for Military Families through a Multilayered Approach, at

The webinar has been submitted for free Continuing Education Units for Social Work, LPC, LMFT, Case Managers, Certified Family Life Educators, and Dietitians.


Asch, B. J., Rennane, S., Trail, T. E. et al. (2023) Food Insecurity Among Members of the Armed Forces and Their Dependents. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control. (2020). Unfit to Serve: Obesity and Physical Inactivity Are Impacting National Security.

Economic Research Service, USDA. (2022). Definitions of Food Security. 

US Department of Agriculture. (2022).  Food and Nutrition Security.

About the Author

Noelle Harden

Noelle Harden

Noelle Harden hails from Moorhead, Minnesota, where she has worked as a Health and Nutrition Educator for the last ten years. Noelle is a creative thinker and has used various strategies to address nutrition security in her work and personal life. At the University of Minnesota Extension, she supports communities and organizations in advancing food justice and health equity through public participation.  We invite you to engage with us on Twitter @OneOpTeam and OneOp on Facebook.

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