SAN DIEGO -- It's a hidden crisis that has existed for years inside one of the most well-funded institutions on the planet and has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. As many as 160,000 active-duty military members are having trouble feeding their families.
That estimate by Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks around the country, underscores how long-term food insecurity has extended into every aspect of American life, including the military.
The exact scope of the problem is a topic of debate, due to a lack of formal study. But activists say it has existed for years and primarily affects junior-level enlisted service members -- ranks E1 to E4 in military parlance -- with children.
"It's a shocking truth that's known to many food banks across the United States," said Vince Hall, Feeding America's government relations officer. "This should be the cause of deep embarrassment."
The group estimates that 29% of troops in the most junior enlisted ranks faced food insecurity during the previous year.
"It is what it is," said James Bohannon, 34, a Naval petty officer third class in San Diego who relies on food assistance to keep his two daughters fed.
"You know what you're signing up for in the military," he said, after emerging from a drive-thru food distribution organized by the local Armed Services YMCA branch. "But I'm not going to lie. It's really tough."
In addition to modest pay for junior enlisted ranks, the frequent moves inherent to military life make it difficult for military spouses to find steady work. Also, the internal military culture of self-sufficiency leaves many reluctant to speak about their difficulties, for fear they will be regarded as irresponsible.
The problem is exacerbated by an obscure Agriculture Department rule that prevents thousands of needy military families from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program government assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.
"We're the mightiest military on the face of the earth and yet those who are on the lower rung of our military ranks are -- if they are married and have a child or two-- they're hungry," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former Blackhawk pilot who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq. "How can you focus on carrying out the mission and defending our democracy. If you're worried about whether or not your kid gets dinner tonight?"
Perhaps the best indication of how entrenched the problem has become is that a robust network of military-adjacent charitable organizations such as the Armed Services YMCA and Blue Star Families has developed an infrastructure of food banks near most major domestic bases.
San Diego may be one of the epicenters of the phenomenon, with high housing costs and multiple military bases within driving distance. Armed Services YMCA had been hosting drive-thru food distribution events for more than 10 years, but when the pandemic struck, expanded operations from six sites to 11 around the country and doubled the frequency of the San Diego-area events.
One of the strangest aspects of the problem is a mysterious Agriculture Department regulation that prevents thousands of needy military families from receiving food stamps. Families living outside the base grounds receive a Basic Allowance for Housing to help cover most of their costs.
But the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act dictates that the allowance counts as income in calculating eligibility to receive food assistance benefits and that ends up disqualifying thousands of military families. The allowance doesn't count as income for tax reasons or for benefits through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Food security activists say they're confused by both the original rule and the fact that it has endured for more than 12 years.
"No one seems to know why it's still a law," said Hall, the Feeding America official.
Dorene Ocamb, chief development officer for the Armed Services YMCA, speculated that the regulation is "just a case of unintended consequences."
A spokesman for the USDA said in an email reply that the department is "taking a fresh look at our authorities with respect to this policy."
The issue directly impacts national security, said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON, an organization that has done extensive research on military hunger.
Armed forces members enduring food insecurity are more likely to be distracted in the field and less likely to reenlist, he said. That talent loss may be generational because military service tends to run in families.
"We're doing a disservice to future recruitment efforts," Protas said. "We could be losing good people because they can't support their families."
Several people involved in the issue criticized the Pentagon for turning a blind eye to the problem.
"The denial by the Pentagon has been frustrating," Protas said. "It's embarrassing for our leaders to acknowledge the problem."
Colleen Heflin, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, said the lack of Pentagon interest has led to a critical shortage of proper study or data.
"In my experiences, it's hard to explain this to Department of Defense officials," she said. "They find it embarrassing and something they would not like to acknowledge."
But Ocamb pushes back against the criticism that the military is burying the issue.
She acknowledges that there are "some optics that people are trying to work around" but says most base commanders welcome the assistance and points out that the Navy literally owns the San Diego property where the Armed Services YMCA food distributions take place.
"I think the military knows this is a complex issue and they rely on partners like us," she said. "This concept that the military wants to sweep this under the rug ... then why do they let us keep doing this on Navy-owned ground?"
Some of those who had complained about Pentagon reluctance to face the issue say the attitude has changed in recent months under the administration of President Joe Biden.
Shannon Razsadin, president of the Military Family Advisory Network, says she has felt a change in attitude from the Pentagon this year, and partially credits first lady Jill Biden for publicly championing the issue.
"They are focused on understanding it in the Pentagon," she said. "Six months ago, I wouldn't have said that."
Efforts to secure Pentagon comment on this issue were unsuccessful. But a Pentagon official told The Associated Press that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would be publicly speaking on the subject in the near future.
There are fresh attempts by Congress to tackle the problem. Duckworth has sponsored a bill that would establish a Basic Needs Allowance payment for military families in need. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., has appealed for a serious Pentagon study of the problem and a repeal of the USDA's Basic Allowance for Housing regulation.
"At this stage, there's no excuse for anyone in the top echelons of the Pentagon to say they don't know this is a problem," McGovern said. "It's not rocket science. This is solvable ... somebody take responsibility and solve it."