Jacksonville USO helps empower healthy military families and end food insecurity

Julie Davis (left) greets a guest, Chef Amadeus, winner of a Food Networks Extreme Chef competition during a Cooking Live With Julie segment for the USO Healthy Military Families initiative in the greater Jacksonville area. (Screenshot by Beth Reese Cravey)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) – Melissa Recker and Monica Snelling, members of the Naval Station Mayport community, have become experts at breaking the family budget in the military.

Recker is a single mother of four children – including a child with a variety of medical conditions – who lost her active husband to cardiac arrest in 2020. Snelling raises five children with her husband “back and forth” on missions on the USS Thomas Hudner.

“We live paycheck after paycheck,” Recker said.

But she and Snelling received a hand-up from the Greater Jacksonville Area USO’s Healthy Military Family Initiative, which includes access to a pantry and lessons in healthy living and cooking. The USO also hosts dough-free dinners to extend paychecks and provides grocery baskets for holidays.

This help, said the two women, was a stroke of luck.

“This program has helped balance our grocery budget and it has allowed us to pay off some of our debts faster than if we hadn’t gotten the help,” said Snelling.

Recker said, “It has had a positive impact on my family’s life, reducing stress and worry.”

‘Home away from home’

Founded in 1979, the USO area’s Mayport, Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Jacksonville International Airport area centers offer a variety of quality-of-life programs for approximately 250,000 active service members and their families, as well as a “home away from” home environment.

The Health Military Families Initiative in Mayport was launched in 2019 and focuses on health, wellness and nutrition education. Leading partners are Feeding Northeast Florida, a regional food bank; Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry (BEAM), which serves low-income residents in Jacksonville’s beach communities; and Humana Military, a prime contractor for managed health care for service members, families and retirees.

“Nobody should go hungry, but it is particularly worrying that so many of our neighbors who currently serve our land are struggling to feed their families,” said Susan King, president and CEO of Feeding Northeast Florida, which accounts for about 70 percent of the The initiative supplies food.

Local companies supporting the effort include Winn-Dixie, Publix, and Crowley Cares, the charitable and volunteer arm of Crowley Maritime Corp. Crowley recently donated $ 25,000 to food and other wellness initiatives through the USO’s alliance with the First Coast American Heart Association.

Crowley employees are committed to “serving those in need and promoting the importance of well-being for those whose victims protect us,” said Chairman and CEO Tom Crowley.

The Health Military Families Initiative’s initiative was “to provide young military families with the critical resources and education they need to maintain healthy eating habits,” according to the USO.

Families qualify based on income and family size, said Executive Director Mike O’Brien. You will receive food every other week, but you must also take part in the educational component.

He quoted the Italian saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.”

“It’s not just free food,” said O’Brien. “We teach them to cook. A 27-year-old doesn’t know what to do with an eggplant.”

Snelling said the cooking classes changed her family’s life.

“I believe that learning to cook and eat healthily is just as important as learning to eat,” she said. “We’ve been able to learn how to cook in ways we haven’t done before, and I love trying new ways of cooking. It helps my picky eaters try new things.

Recker said fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking classes helped her family eat nutritious meals.

“What a blessing it is not only to help me bring healthy meals to my table, but … to help so many other families do the same,” she said.

Pandemic intensifies fighting

The financial hardships that many young military families have faced have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many military spouses lost their jobs, especially those who worked in hospitality and retail, O’Brien said.

Military officials tend to marry and have children earlier, O’Brien said. Most of them are in the E-3 through E-5 salary bracket with a starting monthly salary of $ 2,042 to $ 2,467, which is the equivalent of $ 24,504 to $ 29,699 per year.

“The food insecurity impact of COVID on the military has nearly doubled from 15 percent to 29 percent,” he said. “Most of this increase is due to military spouses losing their jobs due to the pandemic.”

As a result, “a family of four, they can’t make it,” said O’Brien. “They struggle with food insecurity. Don’t starve, but they don’t eat high-quality foods, fresh foods.”

As the pandemic subsides and more people return to work, he hopes the military food insecurity rate will fall back to the 15 percent range. But there are still many military families in this area who need help, he said.

Though likely eligible to get food stamps or use community pantries, “young military families are reluctant to seek social services,” according to Humana Military. “The USO, Feeding Northeast Florida and BEAM are closing this gap.”

“Supporting the military, or ‘serving the deserved,’ is very important to me as a retired military spouse and family member,” said Lavender Morrison, Humana’s leader in Jacksonville’s military health and resilience. “Humana Military is proud to work with the Jacksonville community to create collaborative projects that address the social determinants of health within the military.”

The Healthy Military Families Initiative, she said, “is a wonderful example of how working together can maximize community resources for the greatest impact.”

The initiative currently serves approximately 100 Mayport families.

“There are far more who qualify, but logistically we have the maximum capacity,” said O’Brien.

There’s more to come

A capital 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.

The USO is also looking for suitable funding for a refrigerated box truck that will help expand the initiative beyond Mayport to include Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in southeast Georgia and Patrick Space Force Base in Brevard County, said O’Brien. “We want to get the program on the road,” he said.

Feeding America, the national organization that includes local subsidiary Feeding Northeast Florida, has provided a grant of $ 35,000, but the truck will cost about $ 70,000.

“We’ve worked with the Greater Jacksonville Area USO for more than four years,” said King of Feeding Northeast Florida. “It recently became clear that they needed to expand their facility to meet the growing needs of our military families.”

Grants and strategic partnerships with other organizations resulted in funding for the refrigerator truck, as well as freezers and refrigerators, pantry equipment and “additional food resources to support expansion,” she said.

Meanwhile, BEAM has also made groceries available to the USO and expects to increase that support for an expanded pantry, said executive director Lori Richards.

“Nutritional education is an important aspect of all BEAM nutrition programs, so we are fully aligned with the goals of the USO program,” she said. “Beams Registered Dietitian can … encourage families, and especially children, to recognize that the choices they make about what they eat have long-term health implications.”

Virtual cooking classes for kids recently evolved into BEAM, which houses a group of military kids in their garden, she said.

Recker and Snelling said all of the components of the initiative – the food distribution, the classes, and the BEAM garden visit – mean more to them than any of the organizations or volunteers know.

“I am so grateful and grateful for the generosity of everything the USO is doing to help the military community, and I am often overwhelmed by the support they have given me and my children,” Recker said. “You have big hearts.”

Snelling said she will miss the USO in Jacksonville if her family moves elsewhere.

“We are incredibly blessed with the USO and all of its programs,” she said. “My husband had been going in and out most 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 continue to help families even during COVID. I can not saying enough good things about them. ”

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(c) 2021 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Florida)

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