At least 160,000 active-duty military members are struggling to feed their families, according to Feeding America, which coordinates over 200 food banks across the country.
It is unknown what the exact scope of the issue is, as there have been no formal studies. But activists say it has continued for years, mostly with junior-level enlisted service members -- ranks E1 to E4 in military parlance -- who have children, The Associated Press reported.
"It's a shocking truth that's known to many food banks across the United States," said Feeding America's government relations officer, Vince Hall. "This should be the cause of deep embarrassment."
During the previous year, 29% of military members faced food insecurity, according to an estimate by Feeding America.
Junior enlisted ranks receive modest pay and have to frequently move, making it difficult for their spouses to maintain a job, the AP reported.
There is a significant network of military-adjacent charitable organizations, like Blue Star Families and the Armed Services YMCA, that have created an infrastructure of food banks near the majoriy of most domestic bases.
Military families living outside of base grounds receive a Basic Allowance for Housing to help cover the majority of their costs. But the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act counts the allowance as income when calculating food stamps eligibility, which results in disqualifying thousands of military families.
However, the allowance does not count as income with WIC benefits for mothers and children or for tax reasons.
"It's one of these things that the American people don't know about, but it's a matter of course among military members. We know this," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Blackhawk pilot who lost both of her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq. "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. 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?"
A U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) spokesman told AP that officials are "taking a fresh look at our authorities with respect to this policy."
Duckworth has sponsored a bill that would establish a Basic Needs Allowance for needy military families. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) has asked for the Department of Defense to study the problem and repeal the USDA regulation that prevents military families in need from receiving SNAP benefits.
Josh Protas, Vice President of Public Policy for MAZON, an organization that has extensively researched military hunger, said military members dealing with food insecurity are less likely to re-enlist and more likely to be distracted in the field, according to the AP. He added that losing such talent may also be generational as 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."