Military families' struggles bring outpouring of support

CBS viewers raise $300K for military families in need
CBS viewers raise $300K for military families... 00:36

Last Updated Feb 26, 2021 7:27 PM EST

Kay, a military spouse, recently traveled back to a food bank to feed her family of six. Her family is one of many military families facing food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It lasts a couple of days, maybe just because there are so many of us in the house," said Kay, who didn't want her last name used for privacy reasons.

Her husband, an E-5 sergeant, works at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. His take-home pay is roughly $3,000 a month. It's not enough. 

"I cannot feed my kids. I cannot make this vehicle payment because I had to feed my kids. It's just unacceptable, really," Kay said. 

Since the pandemic hit, one study found nearly 40% of active-duty service members have food insecurity; for minority members, it's more than half. 

Food bank demand surges among military famili... 02:26

There is not a food pantry at JBLM. Colonel Trey Rutherford, chief of staff for the Seventh Infantry Division, said the base does not track food insecurity either. Rutherford encouraged struggling families to seek help.

"We challenge families to have the courage to trust in us, to trust in their leaders, to help them solve the challenges," Rutherford said. "And they need to feel comfortable saying, 'Hey family, I need some assistance.'" 

The Army Emergency Relief Program helps with budgeting, financial planning and loans for food. The program has disbursed more than $38,000 for regular food assistance, according to JBLM's Directorate of Personnel and Family Readiness. 

But military culture prizes resilience. Asking for help can feel taboo. "So in talking to other spouses, it was kind of like, no, that's kind of hush-hush," Kay said. 

"We know that families have been struggling with this for a long time, but they have often done so quietly. But now we're starting to see families open up a little bit more and seek out that support, which is really good news," said Shannon Razsadin, the executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. 

More military families facing hunger amid pan... 02:24

Many military spouses have lost jobs during the pandemic. JBLM has tracked at least 350 families within the 7th Infantry Division have lost their second income. 

"They are challenged. They are squeezed," Rutherford said. "We must get better and we will get better." 

Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland's district includes JBLM. She spoke recently at a virtual town hall about hunger in the military. In December, Congress failed to approve a Military Family Basic Needs Allowance. The newly-elected congresswoman said that must change. "The people who serve our country should not have to worry about food on the table," she said at the town hall.

Kay has since cut her family's meals to two a day. "It was hardest for the little one just because she doesn't understand. 'I'm hungry. I always eat when I'm hungry,'" she said. 

Since "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell," aired the stories of the families of Desiree Alvarez and Kay, viewers have donated more than $300,000 to the Military Family Advisory Network. 

"We are in awe of the viewers' responses," Razsadin said. 

With that money, the organization is planning to scale up their food distribution to help more families. Razsadin said the organization now has a goal of providing 1 million meals to military families experiencing food insecurity "over the next several months." 

"A special thank you to Desiree and Kay for bravely sharing their stories. By speaking up they lowered the stigma of help-seeking behaviors among military families everywhere," Razsadin said. 


For those who would like more information on how to help military families, visit: www.combatmilitaryhunger.org

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    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.