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An effort in Texas helps members of the military with food insecurity issues

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Food insecurity among Americans remains a real issue, and that also includes U.S. military households. Twenty percent of active-duty respondents to a recent survey say they've experienced food insecurity, and more than 10% experienced hunger. Congress passed a spending bill that includes help for struggling military families. The secretary of defense has called for an action plan, but while that may be a start, Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports it isn't clear if that'll be enough.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Soon after getting married, Tabetha Lamb and her husband, a second Lt. in the Army, were moved to a base in Minot, N.D. The move was challenging, and not just because it started snowing in September and didn't stop, but because the two college graduates had to start paying back loans and his first paychecks in the new assignment weren't correct. They were too low for his rank. By Christmas, they were feeling the crunch.

TABETHA LAMB: There were a few times we got really, really nervous. I did not go to the food pantry at that point because he was an officer, and that was really frowned upon.

FLAHIVE: Rather than ask for help, the two racked up $5,000 in credit card debt. Lamb's father was in the Air Force, and they often struggled early in his career, but she says the attitude in the military has always been if you can't make the ends meet, you aren't being responsible.

LAMB: My God, my dad was working freaking three jobs on top of being in the military. It's just that there's not enough income coming in.

FLAHIVE: Decades after Minot, she says that stigma is still there.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right about there. Thank you, ma'am.

FLAHIVE: She sees it on the faces of active-duty service members when she volunteers at mass food distributions with the San Antonio Food Bank, like this one at Fort Sam Houston, near downtown.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Celery, sweet potatoes, squash, what other vegetables were there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We also have broccoli and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, regular potatoes. White potatoes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Regular potatoes. OK.

FLAHIVE: Members of U.S. Army North bag up produce and quickly pack it into the trunks and truck beds of a long line of cars.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're all set.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you, ma'am.

FLAHIVE: Wife and husband, Angela and Andy Thompson, sit in line in their neon green Kia Soul. Angela has cancer, which has put an extra burden on their income. Andy is an active-duty Army specialist.

ANDY THOMPSON: The pay is sufficient to care for me and my family in completely normal circumstances. Add anything complicated to it, and there's little bits here and there that, you know, come up short.

FLAHIVE: Most people NPR spoke with in line did not want to be identified, like this woman. She and her husband are both veterans. They used food pantries often throughout their time in service. And now, with an injury making her, her husband's caregiver, along with their two children, they need the help more than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I don't want people to realize that I have to ask for help. Like, I'm a mom that can't provide everything I can for my kids. It sucks. And everybody on the outside always thinks that we can take care of ourselves, and sometimes we can't.

CHRISTINE ABRAHAM: I remember when we first started doing this, people didn't even want to roll the windows down to even speak to us.

FLAHIVE: Christine Abraham was an Army dietitian for 28 years. She now runs the culinary wellness program on base. The pandemic highlighted hunger to the nation, but Abraham says when they started this on-base distribution a year ago, not everyone understood the need.

ABRAHAM: I've seen a lot of angry people when it comes to, oh, the food insecurity is not a problem - people angry that we're doing this. That wasn't a problem when I was active duty. I'm like, I don't know what rank you might have been, but it's a problem. It's always been a problem.

FLAHIVE: She says this on-base distribution puts the problem on display and hopes it helps normalize people asking for help. Today, they'll help more than 250 households go home with food.

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ABRAHAM: My fear is to turn people away. That hurts (crying). I mean, you know, you want the food to go to those families that need it. The idea that we won't have enough, that hurts.

FLAHIVE: There are still barriers to military members accessing other federal food aid, like SNAP, Abraham says. Glancing furtively at the line of cars, she's just worried about feeding this line of people today.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.