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Making it in San Diego: Military Hunger, a hidden epidemic

Low-paid enlistees struggle to make ends meet
Posted: 9:22 AM, Aug 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-08-20 19:29:45Z

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -  With three kids at home, including a newborn, managing a family budget is always a struggle for Theresa Washington and her husband. They're trying to survive on his Navy salary, which, some months, doesn't entirely cover everything.

"You try to balance everything and try to budget and hope that it will get through," Washington says.

Theresa used to be in the Navy as well. She quit when daycare for the kids got too costly.

RELATED: Rep. Susan Davis backs legislation making military families eligible for food aid

Over the years, her family has moved from Florida to Minnesota to San Diego through Naval deployments and re-stationing. She says California is easily the most expensive place she's lived.

Fortunately, in 2017, Washington found the Military Distribution Program through Jewish Family Service.

Once a month, JFS does a food giveaway at Camp Pendleton and the Murphy Canyon military housing. Aside from proof of active military service, there are no eligibility requirements.

"Making this just for them, I think it shows them a little more dignity and allows them to access the services they need within their communities," says Sasha Escue, who runs the Food and Nutrition Program for JFS.

The Military Distribution Program started ten years ago, as JFS and other groups began to notice the trend. 

At the Jewish Family Service food distribution, families can get fresh fruit and vegetables, diapers and frozen meat. They try to make sure the food they give away is nutritious and balanced. In 2017, JFS served 1,000 individual military families.

As word gets around, they expect that number to rise.

"My friends and I remind each other every month," says Washington.

According to the San Diego Hunger Coalition, 1 in 10 people who go to food banks has a military member in their family. They believe that number is even higher in San Diego where the cost of living can quickly eat through paychecks.

"These are community members who are making the ultimate commitment with their lives and their time," says Hunger Coalition Executive Director Anahid Brakke. "We should be paying enough that they don't have to go to food distribution."

According to numbers provided by the Hunger Coalition, enlisted servicemen and women with under two years of service make between $19,200 and $34,500 per year. That should qualify them for government food assistance like WIC or SNAP. But, because their housing allowances are also factored into their annual income, many are over the federal poverty level limits to quality.

Some people are trying to change that. Representative Susan Davis introduced H.R. 1078 in Congress, the Military Hunger Prevention Act. According to language in the bill, it's designed to exclude housing allowances from determining eligibility for federal assistance. It's currently in the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

In the meantime, military advocates say the best way to help out is to donate to local food banks, like Feeding San Diego . It's a way to make sure military members can serve and their families can eat.

"It's amazing," says Washington. "We can't thank them enough for helping us."