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24% of the military can’t afford enough food — Scott AFB now has a donation box to help

Alicia Steele reaches to put a box of pasta in the food donation box.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
Alicia Steele, president of Spark Adolescent Resources, fills the food donation box at Scott Elementary on April 3.

Leaders at Scott Air Force Base and a local nonprofit have set up a food donation box at the base’s elementary school to help children who struggle with access to enough food.

“Food insecurity is something that we're worried about,” said Col. Christopher Robinson, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which operates the base.

Created by a local nonprofit, Spark Adolescent Resources, the box contains nonperishable foods and hygiene products, like canned foods and deodorant, said Alicia Steele, the head of the group.

This box sits just outside Scott Elementary School, located adjacent to the base's southwest corner. For Steele, who grew up in a lower-income household, the motivation to create something like this is personal because she knows what it’s like to be hungry at school.

“They're just great kids, and it's not their fault,” she said. “They deserve to have what they need, so that they can focus on school and learn and overcome that cycle.”

Steele, the wife of a service member at Scott, has moved her family around the country — from California to Mississippi. While she didn’t initially notice how many members struggled with this problem, she learned it’s an issue nationwide.

In 2019, 24% of active duty service members didn’t have enough food at some point during the year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Defense. For the country as a whole, that figure is just over 10%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of those in the military, 14% experienced “low food security,” meaning those members struggled with dietary quality, according to definitions by the USDA. The remaining 10% were categorized with “very low food insecurity.” That means they ate less because they couldn’t afford more.

“The majority of the military is not in a food insecurity situation,” Robinson said. “We've got a very targeted set of folks that need it, but they do need it.”

Robinson said it's hard for him or others at Scott to know exactly how many on the base are struggling with not having enough food. Officials could ask airmen how they are doing, but many may not admit they need help, he said.

“It’s seen as a sign of weakness to need something,” Robinson said. “Now, that’s not true, but that’s how a lot of people feel about it. We’re trying to break down that stigma.”

Standing in front of the new food donation fox, Christopher Robinson speaks to a crowd outside the elementary school.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
Col. Christopher Robinson, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which operates Scott Air Force Base, speaks to a crowd outside the elementary school where the food donation box is installed.

In broader terms, Robinson said he knows single parents and those in junior-ranking jobs don’t make as much money and may be the most likely to need some extra help like the box.

Steele first got the idea for the “blessing box” at her children’s middle school. She then made two similar boxes for an elementary in O’Fallon and another in Swansea. When she goes to refill the box at the middle school, she said it’s hard to guess how many people make use of the food because it’s anonymous.

“But now it’s empty all the time,” she said.

To her, that means the box is working. Another good sign: She’s seen crowds of kids at the box.

“It’s not stigmatized,” she said. “The kids are standing at the box after school, doing their thing. They’re not ashamed. They’re happy to have it. It’s a pretty neat thing.”

To aim for similar results, Robinson said officers at Scott are trying to build relationships with those who might need help by acknowledging there is a problem.

“We understand that inflation is outpacing our ability to keep up with pay increases,” he said. "When you admit the problem out loud, your people are more likely to admit that they're part of the population affected by that problem.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.