Kara Dethlefsen lined up early on a recent morning for the food pantry at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego. She and her husband, both active-duty Marines, took turns holding their 4-month-old daughter.
"We most like to get the avocados, lemons, some vegetables to cook up," says Dethlefsen, 27, who first heard about the pantry from an on-base nurse after giving birth.
"This probably saves us anywhere from $100-300 each time we come," she says. That's key for her young family. Her husband is getting ready to transition to civilian life after five years of military service, and they're not sure what financial challenges that could bring.
The food pantry is run by Saddleback Church, one of several faith-based groups that operate on base to bring donated food to military families every month. The pantry offers fresh fruit and vegetables, canned food, meat and baby items like diapers. Typically, about 100 families show up, according to Saddleback pastor Steve Mahnke.
"I always tell my friends, my neighbors, I show them what I got and they seem to be coming," says Sarai Vizcarrondo, 41, as she pushed a cart of produce and canned goods to her car. She says the pantry helps meet the needs of her family, which includes two teenage children and her husband, an active-duty Marine.
Though families cite different reasons for coming, the pantry's popularity points to a real need among service members, says Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles.
"There's nothing that makes you feel more vulnerable or undermines your ability to live your life [more] than not knowing if you're going to be able to feed your family," says Leibman.
Her group tracks food assistance programs, such as pantries, available to military families across the country. She says there are hundreds of pantries on or near most bases or installations that are designed specifically for active-duty military families. She says that's a "serious indicator" of need.
"It's about a system that was designed to support them that is failing in that goal," says Leibman. "We have a military that takes care of its own. Well, here's a place where it's failing, so it needs to course correct."
Calls for better data, swifter response
In July 2016, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Department of Defense was not fully collecting or analyzing data on how many service members were in need of food assistance or enrolled in federal programs such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), and WIC, the program for Women, Infants and Children.
At the same time, the GAO found troubling signs that some military families were in need. For example, nearly 1 in 4 children at DOD schools are eligible for free meals, a program that's based on income. Also, about 23,000 active-duty service members rely on SNAP benefits, according to the 2013 Census Bureau.
Last year, families spent about $67 million in food stamps at commissaries – the discount stores on military bases, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. The largest share was in California.
"This suggests that people serving our country may be having difficulty making ends meet," stated the GAO report, which called on the Department of Defense to do a better job tracking service members' eligibility and use of food-assistance programs.
"Without more complete survey data, DOD will not understand the prevalence of need among service members to effectively target its support," the report concluded.
At the time, the Pentagon said it concurred with the GAO recommendations – but nearly a year later, it still hasn't changed how it tracks the issue.
"This particular issue crosses multiple offices within the DOD in terms of policy responsibility," says Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesman. "Each of those offices takes their specific policies very seriously. They look at things like the GAO report and try to improve whichever policy they're responsible for in terms of taking care of our service members."
He declined to comment on whether specific offices, such as the Defense Health Agency or the Defense Manpower Data Center, both cited in the GAO report, have made specific changes or had changes underway in response to the report. But he adds, "They have read it and they are certainly taking those recommendations into consideration."
Lower enlisted ranks the most vulnerable
When her husband was stationed at San Diego's Naval Base in 2010, Ashley Butler began a meticulous accounting of their household expenses. She tracked gas costs. She bought items in bulk. She limited trips to see family back in Wichita, Kans.
Her husband was an enlisted Naval Seaman, and with two young daughters under 10, they were finding it hard to make ends meet.
"You stretch as much as you possibly can," she says. "It's stressful because you want to make sure you can feed your family."
They qualified for WIC, and Butler, who was 27 at the time, went to the food pantries nearby. But feeding her family was still a challenge – and she knew other families who were having a hard time, too.
"The people who are struggling don't want to talk about it, they're embarrassed by it," she says, adding that her own relatives shared the misconception that all military members earn a high salary.
"People need to be made aware that this is happening," she says.
Service members who qualify and receive federal food assistance make up a small percentage of the overall active-duty population – barely 2 percent of the force, according to the USDA.
But that number tends to draw from a particular slice of the military: lower-ranking enlisted members with children.
An enlisted service member, for example, starts out earning $1,449 per month. In a family with three children, that salary could make them eligible to receive SNAP benefits.
The Pentagon notes that the pay scale rises as a service member stays on duty. Troops also receive additional benefits, including health and dental care, child care and, at times, a housing allowance. By the time a service member rises to an E-4 rank, he or she earns $2,046 monthly.
Still, there are indications that food stamp data provides only a partial picture of need. For example, in a recent survey run by military spouses, called Blue Star Families, 7 percent of active-duty families said they faced food insecurity over the past year. Taken as a percentage of the overall active duty population, that would be more than 80,000 families nationwide.
Butler, the Navy spouse from San Diego, moved with her family to Ridgecrest, Calif., about three hours north of Los Angeles, in 2014. Her husband has since been promoted, which has helped ease the financial pressure. But the move also came with another challenge: The remote area lacks support programs like the food pantries and discount food stores of San Diego.
"We still struggle," she says, adding that her husband first joined the military because he was drawn by a sense of duty to serve his country. "I feel like we're being penalized because he wants to do good, and I shouldn't have to feel that."
Closing a loophole
In the short term, advocates are calling on the government to close a loophole that currently prevents more military families from being eligible for SNAP.
Right now, the funds that a service member receives for living off-base, known as the Basic Allowance for Housing, are counted toward eligibility for SNAP. When that's added to a family's income, it pushes some into an income bracket too high to receive food aid.
Rep. Susan Davis, a California Democrat, has introduced legislation in Congress that would change that. The bill, titled the Military Prevention Hunger Act, has been referred to the military personnel and nutrition subcommittees in the House.
Abby Leibman, of the advocacy group MAZON, says she supports the measure, which her group estimates could double the number of military families who get SNAP. But she says there's a larger issue that society as a whole must grapple with.
"This part of our community is not being served and that's our responsibility, because they are sacrificing so much for us," says Leibman. "It becomes our obligation."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, KPCC-Los Angeles, and WUSF-Tampa, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Dorian Merina is a reporter with KPCC.