Initially, Rachel Szabo was hesitant to seek help from the Armed Services YMCA’s food pantry on Fort Bragg after she lost her job in July.
After all, she said, she’s a college graduate and does not consider her family to be low-income.
But she eventually came around to the idea after she realized that the loss of her job meant her family would struggle to pay the grocery bills.
The pregnant wife of an 82nd Airborne Division member lost her interior design job she was handling remotely.
“I lost my job in July due to COVID,” she said. “We have gone from two incomes to one, and so I have found myself in need of assistance, and the YMCA has helped tremendously with offsetting the cost of groceries for us as a family. And we really appreciate it.”
Szabo’s family is among the Fort Bragg military families who are struggling to pay for food and other essentials during the pandemic, as many spouses of military members have lost their jobs.
Also, Army officials point out that military families are less likely to qualify for food stamps — even after one spouse loses their job — because the program counts the military housing stipend as part of a family’s income. Some members of Congress have called for a change in the law to help soldiers’ families qualify for food stamps.
The struggle to pay bills is magnified in some cases because spouses of soldiers are less likely than those in the civilian sector to find employment due to how often military families have to move, Army officials said.
Other factors are creating challenges for some military families here.
Fort Bragg officials emphasized Friday that the post schools are still offering meals through a federally funded program that is free to military families.
Fort Bragg officials on Friday were fielding media interviews from all over the country after The New York Times published a story, which highlighted the post, saying the pandemic has forced more military families and veterans to seek food assistance.
Post officials said Friday that they are trying to get the word out to soldiers who might be struggling financially to not be embarrassed and take advantage of help the post is offering, which includes not only free food and clothing, but Christmas toys and other services.
Szabo acknowledged that it was not easy to ask for help.
She said she’s always been a self-sufficient person, having paid her way through school with the help of student loans.
She said she’s racked up a “ton” of them, with the payments gobbling up her unemployment checks since she was laid off, adding to the family’s financial strain.
“Once I realized it is nothing to be embarrassed about, I realized that there are programs out there to help and (people should) take advantage of them, and also I have been telling people about them,” she said. “I think more families need to be comfortable to come forward and say, ‘I do need help.’”
Col. Scott Pence, Fort Bragg Garrison Commander, said in a press conference on the post on Friday morning that they are trying to get the message out about the food pantry for soldiers, as it only started up in September 2019.
“Since it started it has had great success,” Pence said.
He said the post can empathize with families that are struggling, especially junior soldiers on the lower pay grade who were part of a family that once had two incomes and are now down to one.
“We can understand the immediate economic impact that is going to have on families,” he said.
He said the Armed Services YMCA provides a food pantry and other services, but Fort Bragg helps soldiers get at the root cause of their financial challenges at The Soldier Support Center.
“That is — financial planning, interview prep — (the post will) even provide suits and dresses for people to go into interviews with and actually just give those as grants,” he said Friday.
He added that the Army has made it a huge priority to help soldier’s spouses get employed as part of its “people first” strategy.
“We have up to $4,000 in grants you can get from the Education Center here at Fort Bragg for spouse education,” Pence said.
He said one big hurdle that might keep a military spouse from working is the high cost of child care.
But he said the Army has made spouses who are seeking employment, not just those who are employed, a top priority for military child care, which is at about 50% capacity right now due to COVID spacing requirements.
“So (military spouses) can get spaces in our child development centers while they are seeking employment, and that takes a lot of strain off of families during this time,” he said.
Michelle Baumgarten, the associate executive director of the Armed Services YMCA at Fort Bragg, said the food pantry is not only for military families but veterans.
She said from March through May the pantry had about a 40% jump in business from military families needing food assistance.
“Those numbers have really stabilized over the past few months here. But when (the pandemic) first hit, we saw a lot of families lose income — especially military spouses who already have about six times the national average of unemployment,” she said.
People interested in donating to the food pantry on the post at 2411 Rodney Trail, Fort Bragg, can call 436-0500.
Army officials said that military families, in general, have more children than civilian families, adding to the financial strain during the pandemic.
The “food insecurity” issue with military families is happening all over the country, according to Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit organization “dedicated to strengthening America’s military families through community building.”
“A troubling pattern has emerged within the active-duty military community of young, enlisted families facing food insecurity,” the organization states in a recent story on its website. “With many military spouses losing their jobs in the economic fallout of COVID-19, food access problems for these families have taken on a new sense of urgency.”
It adds that food stamps should help military families during this crisis, but some do not qualify for assistance “even when they cannot afford adequate food.”
“In the next coronavirus relief bill, Congress should revise the way (food stamp) eligibility is determined for military families to recognize their unique situation and to ensure that no military family struggles to afford food,” the Blue Star story states.