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Starting a Food Pantry for Military Families with Monica Bassett (S.4, Ep.8)
About This Episode
In this episode (Season 4, Episode 8), co-hosts Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch talk with Monica Bassett, founder and CEO of Stronghold Food Pantry, a resource for military families on Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Monica talks about how she started a food pantry on Fort Riley, KS and how she launched Stronghold, highlighting the role military spouses, like Monica, can play in supporting military families.
Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. Here to start the conversation are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Bob Bertsch: Hi, and welcome to the Practicing Connection podcast. I’m Bob Bertsch.
Jessica Beckendorf: I’m Jessica Beckendorf. This year our team at OneOp has been focusing on food security for military families. In the process of preparing for OneOp’s 2023 Military Family Readiness Academy titled Military Families and Food Security: A Call to Action, we came across a news article about Stronghold Food Pantry Founder and CEO, Monica Bassett.
Bob: Monica’s a military spouse and advocate for the underprivileged in the military community. Through her personal experience with food insecurity as a child and by connecting with military families facing the same struggles, she’s made it her mission to ease the burden of food insecurity and shine a light on undernourishment of families. She founded Stronghold Food Pantry on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to respectfully supply resources to families.
Provide actionable solutions and educate others on the crisis of food insecurity in the military. Monica was named the Armed Forces Insurance Army Spouse of the Year in 2022 because of her commitment to alleviating food insecurity, and we are so very excited to have her join us for the podcast and for today’s conversation. Welcome to Practicing Connection, Monica. Thanks so much for joining us.
Monica Bassett: Thank you. I appreciate y’all having me on.
Jessica: Monica, I’m really curious what led you to your work on food security.
Monica: It really just started over COVID. Military families were stuck in a predicament where children were being sent home, school was out, spouses had to either quit their job, try to find remote work. Things got really tight. I was in an installation Fort Riley, Kansas at the time, and we were also very highly deployable that soldiers were always gone. I started seeing the increased need and call to action of families needing help. They weren’t asking for money. They weren’t asking for rides. They weren’t asking for big-ticket items. They were asking for help stocking their refrigerator, their pantries. I just started it from my garage.
I started with our funds buying food. What I actually did was bringing it back to something that you guys mentioned in your last podcast, community resilience. I really identified the gap– I just sort did it backwards. I identified the gap. I started with my own resources, my family. Then the community came and they found ways that they could contribute. I had neighbors whaling down in wagons foods to stock up so that I could feed more military families, and it became a coast-wide initiative. After that it grew to civilians wanting to contribute, and the community wanted to take part in this initiative to help its military families. That’s really how it started.
Jessica: Wow. You started to touch on this, but how did you know where to start? Tell me more about how you knew where to start.
Monica: I didn’t. [laughter]
Jessica: That is what pretty much every caring community volunteer has probably ever said, “I really didn’t know where to start. I just started doing stuff.” Tell me more about that, Monica.
Monica: It was a gut punch. It wasn’t something all-inspiring. It was a gut punch to have military spouses like myself asking for assistance. Asking for help in the most humble of ways. It really was something that either was going to bring you into action or face you to put the rose-colored goggles on and look the other way. Me and my family opted to just dive into it, and it really just started with knowing what I could do personally to help.
After that, being that person that was in the forefront led others to say, “I want to join you,” and then the initiative grew. When I left Fort Riley, I knew I needed to lead this program with someone who I couldn’t trust because my mission was never to start something and let it die. It has to continue and has to continue helping families. I left it with the Spouses Club there at Fort Riley and that program is still continuing now.
Jessica: Wow. One of the cool things I’m noticing in your story is that sometimes even when we start alone in something like this, we’re not alone, people will start to notice. We all have what’s in our circle of control the things that we actually can do ourselves. We all have a circle of influence, but sometimes we might not know who’s in that circle of influence.
As people start to see what we’re doing, that circle of influence might start to come to you, which sounds like what happened to you, Monica. In that same vein, I’m really interested to know what your collaborations were like both on installation and in the community. Did you collaborate with people who were out in the community as well as on installation? If so, tell me a little bit more about how that came about and what that was like.
Monica: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s very important to build bridges with our civilian community. I think that that is how military installations and military communities thrive. Because we contribute to our outside civilian installation by shopping there, living there, paying taxes, buying vehicles. They want to also tie back into us. When you can build that bridge and let them be helpful to military families in the installation, things can be very successful. What I started there, first initially I researched all the food pantries that were civilian food pantries around the installation, around several counties.
I started talking to their executive directors, I started volunteering. I started bringing groups of military spouses to come volunteer with me so that we could see the climate, the dynamic, how they operate, how they service. After that, I started bringing in our local command team. We had command spouses come out and want to see for themselves what was happening in these outside communities. How they were servicing civilians, and possibly military personnel that also attended there. I think it’s very important to tie and to build those bridges with our outside community.
Even now fast forward two years and Stronghold as a nonprofit, we are bringing in organizations from civilian communities, Kansas City, Wichita, Missouri, that want to help military families, but don’t have a tie into the military community. They’re like, “We don’t even service your county, we don’t even service that, will you be an agency we can partner with?” Absolutely. If that means that I can alleviate a burden to a military family somehow, absolutely. Let’s try to figure out how to make this work.
Jessica: Do you have a sense for how they didn’t have a tie-in to the military community?
Monica: In the military, we are personified by the notion of we take care of our own. That is a lot of what civilian organizations, hospital, agencies that help a civilian community with diapers, and formula, and food. Those are the notions that they have. We didn’t know this was happening in the military community. A big part of what I do as the Founder and CEO of Stronghold is get myself out into the civilian community and educate those individuals.
Because they had no idea that military families were living with 24% of food insecurity, or that they do not qualify for SNAP benefits because after 6 hours and 27 minutes of me personally waiting on hold to apply we don’t qualify. Because from the get-go we’re disqualified because of the way our earnings statement is read. Which is shocking because this same federally funded program of WIC runs a completely different way with regulations and guidelines and military families do qualify for that.
What I am seeing within Stronghold and with different food pantries that run and help military installations, it’s that our highest demographic of military families needing assistance are not E1Z, 2Z3s. They are E6s, E7s who already have grown children in the household, which makes sense they’re eating more. They’re more hungry. They’re living in a more active lifestyle. What they’re being able to get for their money in a grocery store is not sustaining that active lifestyle, which in turn equals food insecurity.
Jessica: When my dad was E67, I was a teenager and I needed money for the movies. [laughs]
Monica: It’s sad. What you just noted right there is hard because if families do don’t have the funds for groceries, sadly they also don’t have the funds for any actual fun that the family might have, and activities that you would really love your children to enjoy. All those extra perks. Currently, Stronghold is doing Pack the Backpack event next week for families because PCS season is one of the largest factors in what tilts military families into food insecurity. When you compound those expenses with a $200 back-to-school supply bill, that it’s sometimes doubled and tripled, that’s a huge burden. I always try to think of that. If military families don’t have the financial means to really supply that adequate food, there are many other things that are going by the wayside as well.
Bob: Monica, can you tell us a little bit more about how Stronghold got founded after you left Fort Riley?
Monica: Yes. It still moves me now because who would’ve thought that something that just started in a garage an agency, a large organization? Armed Forces Insurance approached me when I moved to our next installation, Fort Leavenworth. They had read about some of the things that I had done at Fort Riley. They wanted to help military families, and they wanted to tie into what we were doing.
They became a founding sponsor by giving me space. I have zero overhead. Stronghold has space completely donated by Armed Forces Insurance and that includes utilities and anything in their facility that I might need. That is tremendously generous and that really to me shows their dedication to want to help the military community.
Bob: Is that space on installation?
Monica: It is. We are on Fort Leavenworth in their building, just right around the corner from the local hospital.
Bob: How have you seen military families adapt to that or come to Stronghold? Do you have a sense of where folks who needed help at Fort Leavenworth were going previously?
Monica: Yes. Military families here– first and foremost, Fort Leavenworth is typically known as a very officer-heavy installation because we have the academy here. You have a lot of officers come in, transitioning from captain to major. However, we also hold the barracks prison on the other side of the installation, and we hold over 800 junior enlisted soldiers and families here. That is very predominant in this installation.
They used to service. They used to attend services at outside organization, Salvation Army, Catholic charities, things of that nature. There is always those fear of repercussions of who’s going to report me because a lot of outside food pantries they require to take in earning statements income in order to get state and federal grants. Anytime they have to identify who they are, put down their information.
The first question that the director at Catholic charity shared with me was– or that they say, “Are you going to share this with our commanders? Are you going to share this with the installation?” She’s like, “I always have to reassure them that we will not.” Where Stronghold stands in the gap is the fact that to reassure them to make sure that we do service and help all military families. Because as I noted earlier, our families do not qualify for SNAP.
Even if we did require them to apply, they would not qualify for our services if we required that. By standing in the gap Stronghold requires no earning statements. If you say that you need assistance, if you can get past the stigma, if you can get past the fear of repercussions and the embarrassment and you say you need assistance. Then we’re going to service you, no questions asked. That’s truly where we stand in the gap because we are not a DOD facility.
We do not run the numbers up. We do not take units, information, rank, any of that information, and pass it along in the chain. We do not make them qualify by an earning statement. We are truly very unique in the space where we do fall into that gap. We have seen that in the course of five months our patrons, and it’s bittersweet because you never want someone to need this assistance. It’s also at the same time exciting that the word is getting out that they can trust you.
The more names that come on and the more relationships that we build with our patrons they’re like, “My friend told me you guys were safe. They were never reported, so we really need some help.” Then you have families coming in saying, “We have an emergency request because my spouse needed to leave or deploy TDY and now we have all these expenses.” The fact that they can trust you and that word of mouth is getting out there is very special to Stronghold because it means that we’re doing something right.
Bob: You talked a little bit about the stigma and I just– in the introduction, I mentioned that Stronghold tries to respectfully provide these things. What does that mean to you and to Stronghold Food Pantry to respectfully provide this service to our military families?
Monica: That is probably one of my biggest notions or something I keep in the forefront for me in my mission, and it’s in the mission statement as well. Because it just means so much protecting a service member and their families anonymity and our culture is huge. This is why they don’t report that they are having issues. It is noted from the Department of Defense that one of the largest issues that military service members, why they do not report having food insecurity, financial difficulty, mental health issues, any of that is always fear of repercussions and stigma.
The way that Stronghold tries to protect their anonymity is they always reserve appointment times that they can have one-on-one time. They have a sanctioned time where they can come in, they can shop, have personal attention, and have someone that they can talk to. Because a lot of the times they open up about various different items that are affecting their life or what brought them to this situation.
For instance, an E-2 that came in, he and his spouse were leaving a bad situation at home after high school and they join the service. He then brought on his little brother, who is also a teenager, became his legal guardian, and as an E-2 you don’t have the pay to sustain another body, much less a teenage body. These individuals were trying to be better global citizens.
They were trying to do better for themselves, enroll in higher education paid by the military, and they were willing to bring on someone else so they wouldn’t become a statistic. These are the stories at that personalized time, that anonymity that we protect. They bring out these stories in these people. They bring out the trust and you start building these relationships. We do privatize time slots for military families to come in.
They can shop and they leave without bumping into a neighbor, bumping into their NCO, bumping into an officer or anyone else. I also do not allow any people in uniform personnel in our area, and that includes my spouse who tries to deliver food sometimes to me. I yell at him, “No, no one’s allowed in here. You’re not going to spook any of my patriots because this is what’s important to them. This is how we build trust.”
Bob: What have been some of the biggest challenges in either experience on Fort Riley or Fort Leavenworth with running a food pantry on installation?
Monica: Especially at Leavenworth because we were getting a whole operational warehouse and it’s the obstacles of weight. You’re not actually sanctioned by the Department of Defense. You’re not ACS, MWR, a chaplain, you are not these entities. We are a complete outside nonprofit organization run volunteered by military spouses. That was probably the biggest thing after people started noticing that we were assisting and we were doing good.
We were providing services that are not provided. People are coming around. That was probably the biggest obstacle at this installation at Fort Leavenworth because we do have a warehouse. Fort Riley was a complete different beast. We did have some really phenomenal leadership there who just jumped in and said, “What is the issue? How can we help? Let’s see this for ourselves.” “Hey, Monica, Come work with me and develop a task force to try to help our military families.” “Hey, Monica, come sit with my aide and run through this list and let’s give out some resource sheets to all our soldiers.” It really depends. Just like any organization, whether you’re for-profit or non-profit, whether you’re civilian or military. It always depends on the climate of your environment, and it depends on who is working that environment.
It’s very different. It’s not what happened for Stronghold at Fort Leavenworth or what happened for me at Fort Riley before Stronghold was actually a nonprofit. Could be very different than what could happen for someone at Whiteman Air Force Base or in Misawa. It would be very different. It just really depends on your climate, your environment, and honestly your volunteers and your leadership.
Bob: You have advice for folks. Having said that context matters, the climate matters, what advice would you have for somebody who was interested in whether it’s working on food insecurity or another issue for military families as a military spouse?
Monica: Yes. Recently, within the last few months, my email has been getting inundated with emails from various spouses. I mentioned a few of those from Misawa, Spangdahlem Air Force Base, Whiteman Air Force Base, Coast Guard West Coast, on how can you help me get through this? What are your best practices? One of the most in-depth that I helped was Spangdahlem Air Force Base. We had several Zoom conversations on here are my best practices and here’s where I would start.
It always starts with, first, get a feel for your climate because we all want to help. Military spouses we are in this community to do whatever we can for our neighbors, but the biggest thing is– the way I mentioned at Fort Riley, I started involving myself with outside community organizations. I started asking questions of executive directors, what’s your percentage, how many military families? Let me get a feel for how you run. That is always my first step for when people ask me, how do you start this, is you have to learn your climate.
You can’t just say, “Well, I saw five posts of families needing help, or I need help.” I’m going do this whole pantry or this whole initiative. No, first research the climate, find out what resources are there, how they operate, maybe where the gaps are. Like maybe this resource is out there. However, this pantry at this chaplain’s office is really only a coat closet or a cabinet, and is only open between the hours of 8:00 and 10:00 and you have to answer the chaplain’s 30-minute questions. That already is going deter a family tenfold times.
They’re not going to want to answer the chaplain’s questions and sit there and be embarrassed and worry in the back of their head on who this is going to be reported to. Even though they know that that should be a private conversation, it’s always something that’s going to run in the back of your head. First and foremost, I always say, “Go figure out your climate. Go find out those resources. Find out where those gaps fall,” which leads back to your last podcast that I had listened to on your community resilience.
This is how you truly shape a very successful organization that can truly target and benefit your military families. After you figure out climate, after you figure out where the gaps are or where you can contribute to them. Then you can figure out, do you actually need a whole new service, or can you tap into these outside resources. After that, if then that leads you down the path of talking to garrison command and your chain command on post, then let it be that, but you are going armed with information. That is always my biggest thing. You need to be armed with the statistics, the data. That’s what drives change.
Jessica: By that time you might also be armed with a whole network of other supports that are willing to step in and help if they can.
Monica: Yes. You nailed it. Absolutely.
Jessica: That was super clear. It’s very clear that you have lots and lots of experience with this. [laughs] It is, it is, it’s very clear. Is there a specific practice that’s been really helpful in your work or to you individually that you’d be willing to share with us? Something that you practice maybe regularly?
Monica: Yes, a couple of things. As far as food pantry goes, we practice always in that space of protecting anonymity and being able to serve our military families with dignity and respect. That leads me to the practice of whether you’re a volunteer or whether you’re a staff member or part of our board. My practice of interviewing every single person who comes through that door. Even a partner, a donor, I have turned away new stations, articles being printed about Stronghold, because anonymity and protecting our service members is always first for me.
That is a practice that I will never let go of despite what happens. Like I said, I’ve turned away news stations who wanted to run stories. I’ve turned away articles because they want names, and can we be there to film when you’re giving food out? Absolutely not. That also goes to who I bring on board. Even a general volunteer, even someone that works within the pantry and the warehouse. If you are not in line with our mission and our passion, because to do this work you have to have a passion for it. Not everyone who is sitting in an office for the Department of Defense, in organizations, at the chaplain’s office who are assigned to be a chaplain’s aid.
Not everyone has a passion to serve military families, and not everyone has a passion to be embedded in these stories and help them through their dark period and to be that hand up. I am very particular in who I bring in. There has to be the practice of meeting me, of operating under me for a while before I can say, “You can fully volunteer here,” and it’s volunteer, it’s for free. I’m not going to bring in anyone who can slightly break or cause amend in that relationship with our patriots.
Jessica: I’m a huge proponent of those one-on-one conversations. I really believe that through that you can not only find where there are bridges to be built, but you can also just continue to deepen the network and deepen the supports for good work.
Bob: Hey, Monica, I have one more question for you, and that is you have accomplished so much and put so much of yourself into this and your family. What do you do for yourself in terms of practice to keep going and stay healthy and do the great work that you’re doing?
Monica: To be honest, not much. [laughs] That is what we get into a lot, but no. I will say something, my volunteer time at the pantry with like-minded individuals truly helps me get through some obstacles. When we were PCSing we were stuck in a seven-week PCS for a two-hour move. It was supposed to be door to door, but mishaps with privatized housing, all the stuff and we were homeless, PCS homeless for seven weeks. During that time I found a civilian food pantry and food drive to go to. I cannot explain how happy my heart was after that and how centered I felt. There is truly something that happens with giving work back to your community that is fulfilling.
There is data out there on what community service does to your mental sanity to help improve your wellness. From the voices of our volunteers, one in specifically has said, “I am so happy you exist. I’m so happy you allowed me to volunteer because this got me through the darkest time.” Because we’re building not only community with our patriots, but we’re building community within our volunteers. We now have friends that they didn’t have before. They now have someone they can depend on. While we’re working and stocking the shelves, a lot of the times we’re also airing our grievances and our stresses and having a therapy session within ourselves.
I honestly have to say that a lot of that– and once the kids go back to school it’ll be a lot better too. Because right now my children go to the pantry with me and that’s not very calming. Going to the pantry really does help, and aside from that we all like to talk to our community, our friends that have been with us for years and have seen me go from A to Z and all the aspects. I think communication is key to help alleviate a lot of the mental anxiety and mental stress and then like a massage.
Jessica: Yes, you got to that part at the very, very end, yes. No, wonderful. That’s awesome.
Bob: Monica, I want to thank you so much for joining us and for the work that you’re doing to support our military families in a time of need. Thank you so much for joining us and for the work that you do. It was great to talk with you.
Monica: Thank you both for having me. I really appreciate it. Thank you for shining a light on what is happening with our military families and for Stronghold.
Jessica: That’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for joining us. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. By signing up to be a part of the Practicing Connection community at oneop.org/practicing-connection. By following us on X. Our X handle is @practicingcxn, Practicing Connection that’s @practicingcxn.
Bob: Jessica is probably mad at me for pulling back the curtain, but an awesome job adjusting to not saying the T-word for the app that is now called X.
Jessica: Thank you.
Bob: Good job. Thank you for joining us for this conversation. We’ve really enjoyed having you here. Thanks again to our guest, Monica Bassett. We’d also like to thank our co-producer Coral Owen, our announcer Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde, Maggie Lucas, and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing, and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. We hope you’ll join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.
Kalin: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award number 2019-48770-30366.
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