Published: November 18, 2021
Coming Full Circle: When Combating Food Insecurity Hits Home
As a former military child, Army Veteran, Army spouse, and now caregiver to a wounded warrior, Tosombra “Tai” Kimes knows a thing or two about the unique experiences and challenges military-connected families face on a daily basis. She’s seen the good—traveling, learning about the world, and experiencing different cultures. And she’s seen the hardships—deployments leading to physical and mental scars, frequent moves, and missing out on time with extended family. While there are many challenges military families expect and accept as part of their experience, struggling to put food on the table is something no one signs up for. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where many military families find themselves.
“We were a family of eight, six kids plus my parents,” Tai recalled. “Despite working hard and moving up in the ranks, growing up, we struggled a lot. I remember babysitting for my first job as a kid. I was working, saving my money, and I kept thinking about a nice pair of shoes that I would buy. I had finally saved up enough money to buy them, but then I heard my sisters complaining about being hungry. We ate a lot of ramen noodles, bread baked with American cheese, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We would often run out of milk, and we hated having to water it down to have enough for our cereal. And don’t get me started on SPAM and Vienna sausages with crackers. I decided against getting those shoes and, instead, I walked to the shopette a few blocks away from my house. I bought frozen pizzas, milk, and bread. I returned home with the biggest smile on my face, so excited to show my sisters. It never hit me until much later in life how much we struggled. I was poor and I didn’t even know it.”
Tai’s experience, while heartbreaking, is not unique for military families, especially those that are enlisted. According to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 14% of enlisted active-duty families report facing food insecurity. What’s more, the National Military Family Association, a Blue Star Partner and trusted advocate for military families, specifically looked at military kids in its Military Teen Survey, which also found that military teens reported running out of food. A decade later from Tai’s experiences as a teenager, it’s clear things haven’t gotten better for our military kids and families. That’s a problem.
We have to start asking why. Why are hardworking service members struggling to feed their families? While there are some policy problems that need to also be addressed, a big culprit causing financial concerns is spouse employment. Military spouse unemployment sits at 20%, a data point that hasn’t seen statistically significant change in over a decade. And that lack of significant change has a profound impact. In response to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, enlisted families reporting food insecurity jumps to 20% when you look specifically at families whose spouses are not employed but report they need and want to work, compared to 10% when looking at those who are employed full or part time.
“When I was a single soldier, the money I made was alright,” Tai shared. “The moment I had a child, everything changed. I remember bartending and even working at a call center on the weekends just to make enough money to pay for child care, Pampers, and stay afloat. It was rough. Then, to support my husband’s military career, I had to quit my job. There wasn’t additional income anymore, and we really felt things get hard. I don’t think it matters what your military rank is, that can be a tough financial strain on any budget. Imagine that in a marriage, only one spouse could be guaranteed to have a paid job at any given time. Imagine that child care was sparse and your family and trusted friends live hundreds of miles away. Imagine having a child with special needs and driving hours away on a monthly basis on that one income. These are just some of the experiences that military families face that civilian neighbors don’t always see or understand. It’s common for a military spouse to have held over 10 different jobs throughout their service member’s career. It’s not because they can’t hold a job or lack education and experience, but because they follow their service member from one duty station to the next, every 2-3 years.”
Through her experiences, Tai also saw how much the support of military and civilian organizations could positively impact her and her children. Her leadership always made sure her family would receive gifts and food at the holidays and had outlets available to ask for help. When Tai became a caregiver to a wounded warrior, she connected with another resource: Blue Star Families.
While struggling to adjust to her new role and navigating her husband’s injuries, at the recommendation of a friend, Tai attended a Blue Star Families Caregivers Empowering Caregivers event. “After that event, Blue Star Families had my support for a lifetime,” Tai shared. “I quickly learned about all the ways Blue Star Families was helping not just caregivers but the entire military family. I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to come work for them. Military life is all I have ever known. It seems like it’s a part of my being to continue serving and doing for others who may find themselves in situations that I can personally relate to. It’s one thing to know about what someone is going through, and it’s another thing to say, ‘Hey, when I was in this situation, this helped me.’ I love to be in the position to solve problems that myself, my spouse, my children and even my parents have faced.”
Now, as the Chapter Director for Blue Star Families of Missouri, Tai has teamed up with community partners Feed the Children and Coalition to Support America’s Heroes to host food distribution events for families in need. With a focus on creating a safe, comfortable, and fun event for the whole family, Tai works hard to ensure any family receiving help knows they’re receiving a hand up, not a handout. Reaching out when you need it should never be a source of embarrassment or shame. Alongside our Blue Star Partners, we at Blue Star Families are here to offer help—no questions asked.
While Tai’s on a mission to make an impact for the Missouri military community, the national Blue Star Families team is supporting her efforts by looking for solutions to those underlying causes of food insecurity. For starters, we’re working on policy changes to address access to resources and helping military spouses find employment through the Blue Star Careers program. And this month, in a historic partnership with USAA, PenFed, and Navy Federal Credit Union, we’re proud to announce a new Military Spouse Employment Initiative. This groundbreaking work will include a three-year study of spouse un- and underemployment and the creation of a road map of best practices for businesses, so they can see the incredible potential in the military spouse labor pool.
Lastly, if you’re a military family in need, please reach out for support. Find a Chapter near you for resources and programming that can help. If you’re in need of career support, learn how you can access the tools to empower yourself to thrive at www.bluestarfam.org/careers.