Jacksonville USO Helps Strengthen Healthy Military Families and End Food Insecurity
During a “Cooking Live With Julie” segment for the USO Healthy Military Families initiative in the Greater Jacksonville area, Julie Davis (left) greets guest chef Amadeus, winner of a Food Networks Extreme Chef competition . (Screenshot by Beth Reese Cravey)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) – Melissa Recker and Monica Snelling, community members at Naval Station Mayport, have become experts in stretching military family budgets.
Recker is a single mother of four – including one with a wide range of health conditions – who lost her active duty husband in 2020 to cardiac arrest. Snelling is raising five children, with her husband “in and out” on deployments on the USS Thomas Hudner.
“We’re living paycheck for paycheck,” Recker said.
But she and Snelling got a helping hand from the Greater Jacksonville Area USO’s Healthy Military Family Initiative which provides access to a pantry as well as healthy cooking and living classes, between other. The USO also hosts “no dough” dinners to help stretch paychecks and provides food baskets for the holidays.
This help, said the two women, was a godsend.
“This program helped balance our grocery budget and because of it, we were able to pay off some of our debt faster than if we didn’t get the help,” Snelling said.
Recker said: “It has made a positive difference in my family’s life, reduced stress and worry.”
“Home away from home”
Established in 1979, the Mayport Area USO, Naval Air Force Base Jacksonville, and Jacksonville International Airport centers offer a variety of programs to improve the quality of life for approximately 250,000 active-duty military personnel. and their families, as well as to provide a “home away from home environment.”
The Health Military Families initiative in Mayport was launched in 2019 and focuses on education in health, wellness and nutrition. The main partners are Feeding Northeast Florida, a regional food bank; the Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, or BEAM, which assists low-income residents of Jacksonville’s beach communities; and Humana Military, one of the leading contractors in the management of health care for military personnel, families and retirees.
“No one should go hungry, but it is particularly disturbing that so many of our neighbors who currently serve our country are struggling to feed their families,” said Susan King, CEO of Feeding Northeast Florida, which provides approximately 70% food for initiative.
Local businesses supporting the effort include Winn-Dixie, Publix and Crowley Cares, the charitable and voluntary arm of Crowley Maritime Corp. Crowley recently donated $ 25,000 for groceries and other wellness initiatives as part of the USO’s alliance with the First Coast American Heart Association.
Crowley employees are committed to “serving those in need and the importance of the well-being of those whose sacrifices keep us safe,” said Chief Executive Officer Tom Crowley.
The goal of the Healthy Military Families Initiative was to give “young military families the essential resources and education they need to maintain healthy eating habits,” according to the region’s USO.
Families are eligible based on income and family size, CEO Mike O’Brien said. They receive food every two weeks but are also required to participate in the education component.
He quoted the Italian proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for his life.”
“It’s not just free food,” O’Brien said. “They are taught to cook. A 27-year-old doesn’t know what to do with an eggplant.”
Snelling said the cooking classes made a difference in his family’s life.
“I believe that learning to cook and eat healthy is just as important as getting the food yourself,” she said. “We were able to learn to cook like we didn’t before and I love trying new ways of cooking, helping my picky eaters try new things.
Recker said having fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking classes helped her family get nutritious meals.
“What a blessing it is to help me not only put healthy meals on my table, but… help so many other families to do the same,” she said.
The pandemic adds to the struggles
The financial struggles already facing many young military families have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many military spouses lost their jobs, especially those working in the restaurant and retail industries, O’Brien said.
The military tend to marry and have children earlier, O’Brien said. Most of them are in the military pay grade E-3 to E-5, with an entry monthly salary of $ 2,042 to $ 2,467, which translates to $ 24,504 to $ 29,699 per year. .
“The impact of COVID on food insecurity in the military has almost doubled the number from 15% to 29%,” he said. “Most of this increase is the result of the loss of employment of military spouses due to the pandemic.
As a result, “a family of four is not successful,” O’Brien said. “They are food insecure. No starvation, but they are not eating quality food, fresh food.”
As the pandemic eases and more people return to work, he hopes the rate of military food insecurity will drop to 15%. But there are still a lot of military families in that lineup who need help, he said.
Although they are likely qualified to receive food stamps or to use community pantries, “young military families are reluctant to seek social services,” according to Humana Military. “USO, Feeding Northeast Florida and BEAM are filling this gap.”
“Providing support to the military or ‘serving the deserving’ is close to my heart as a former military wife and member of the military family,” said Lavender Morrison, manager of military health and resilience in Jacksonville. Humana. “Humana Military is very proud to work collectively with the Jacksonville community to create collaborative projects addressing the social determinants of health within the military.
The Healthy Military Families Initiative, she said, “is a wonderful example of how collaboration can maximize community resources for the greatest impact.”
The initiative currently serves around 100 Mayport families.
“There are a lot more that qualify, but logistically we have maximum capacity” in the pantry, said O’Brien.
A fundraising campaign is underway to raise funds for a new 2,400 square foot space that will cost approximately $ 650,000. About a third of that cost was collected, O’Brien said.
In addition, the USO is seeking matching funding for a refrigerated truck that will help expand the initiative beyond Mayport to Naval Air Force Base Jacksonville, Kings Bay Submarine Base in South Georgia- East and Space Force Patrick’s base in Brevard County, O’Brien said. “We want to take the program on the road,” he said.
Feeding America, the national organization that includes local affiliate Feeding Northeast Florida, has awarded a grant of $ 35,000, but the truck will cost around $ 70,000.
“We’ve been working with the Greater Jacksonville Area USO for over four years,” said the King of Feeding Northeast Florida. “Recently it has become clear that they need to expand their facilities to meet the growing needs of our military families.”
Grants and strategic partnerships with other organizations led to funding for the refrigerated truck, as well as freezers and coolers, pantry equipment and “additional food resources to help grow,” he said. she declared.
Meanwhile, BEAM has also provided food for the USO and hopes to increase that support for an expanded pantry, said executive director Lori Richards.
“Nutrition education is an important aspect of all BEAM food assistance programs, so we have fully aligned with the goals of the USO program,” she said. “Beam’s registered dietitian is able… to encourage families, especially children, to recognize that the choices they make about their diet have lasting implications for health.
Virtual kids cooking classes recently evolved into BEAM welcoming a group of military kids to their backyard, she said.
Recker and Snelling said all components of the initiative – the food distribution, classes and visit to the BEAM garden – mean more to them than organizations or volunteers know.
“I am so grateful and grateful for the generosity of everything the USO does to help the military community and often overwhelmed by the support they have given to me and my children,” Recker said. “They have a huge heart.”
Snelling said she will miss the Jacksonville USO when her family moves elsewhere.
“We are incredibly blessed with the USO and all of its programs,” she said. “My husband went back and forth the majority of the time we were here and it was amazing to have a little home away from home with the USO and its programs and how much they continued to helping families even during COVID. I can’t say enough good things about them. “
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