Jamie Boling and her husband, Joseph, know that providing for a military family can be trying — waiting for orders, often living on a single income, and, in especially tough cases, supporting a spouse wounded in the line of duty.
Around the holidays, the challenges — especially the financial ones — can tax families already struggling to make ends meet.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit D.C.-based think tank, estimates that as many as 340,000 veterans rely on federal or state rental assistance. About 900,000 veterans live on food stamps, and an additional 5,000 active-duty service members are food stamp recipients.
The nonprofit groups Operation Homefront and Fisher House Foundation stepped in Monday to provide the Bolings and about 300 other military families in the D.C. area with grocery bags filled with the fixings for a holiday meal.
“My husband medically retired in October, and it’s a big transition to go from active duty to medical retirement,” said Mrs. Boling, 29, of Gaithersburg. “It gets hard around this time of year. My husband is making about 30 percent of what he used to be making. You have to start stretching dollars. This literally puts food on the table.”
Families received a bag of disposable plates, silverware, cups and napkins, as well as a bag of canned goods and a bag of dry goods, such as instant potatoes, pie crust and cornbread mix. They were also given Wal-Mart gift cards along with vouchers for turkeys and produce at the store.
“The No. 1 request we hear is for assistance with food and to ensure children have a Christmas to remember,” said Vivian Dietrich, executive director of the D.C. area branch of Operation Homefront. “Families want to ensure their children have pleasant holidays.”
Wal-Mart provided the $2 million to help fill the grocery bags. The donation is part of a pledge by the big-box retailer to donate $20 million to veterans and their families by 2015.
Ms. Dietrich explained that in an expensive city to live in like the District, military families often face the challenge of balancing a food bill with other necessities.
Jennifer Allred said her husband is in the Army and the two of them live in Alexandria with six children, ages 4 to 13.
“We can’t not get gas,” Mrs. Allred, 34, said. So when it comes to cutting back, “the first thing to go is the fresh stuff.”
An average month of grocery shopping can cost upward of $800, Mrs. Allred said, and around the holidays, she and her husband have to figure out how to balance doctor’s appointments and food bills with Christmas wish lists.
“Stuff like this helps to supplement,” she said. “It makes it much easier. Families like ours get lost between the cracks.”
While the Congressional Budget Office a decade ago estimated that the total benefits and pay compensation package earned by the average active-duty service member was $99,000, basic pay for a soldier starts at $18,194 annually — below the $23,550 federal poverty line for a family of four.
Political battles have made the situation even more unsettling.