On a bleak winter afternoon in 2021, a TV news story caught Michael Schaffer’s attention.
The commander of Fort Lewis McCord, a military base near Tacoma, Washington, was telling a reporter that many service members were going to civilian food pantries to feed their families.
As the New Jersey Department Chaplain for the American Legion and a veteran of the U. S. Navy, Schaffer felt compelled to investigate if service members at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey were having the same difficulties.
“The thought of military service personnel dealing with food insecurity struck a chord with me,” Schaffer said.
He was stunned by what he discovered.
Schaffer said he learned that food insecurity, which is defined as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life,” was a widespread issue not limited to any one base.
In fact, a study by the Rand Corporation, released in early 2023, said that one-quarter of active-duty military personnel were food insecure.
With these findings in hand, Schaffer visited the American Red Cross food pantry on the Joint Base, where he encountered a young lady in distress.
“She told me she had just arrived and knew no one,” Schaffer recalled. “She said the pantry distributed food to families and while they had enough food for that day’s distribution, they had nothing left for the next week.”
At that moment, Schaffer made a promise to himself: “No one goes hungry on my watch.”
The Food Warriors program was born.
Few realize that members of the military and their families can face food insecurity issues.
The reality is that there are many reasons why it can, and does, happen, including inflation outpacing military pay and complications from COVID restrictions.
Perhaps the biggest is this: The added burden of moving expenses.
Many military families are required to move every two to three years; the military covers most, but not all, moving costs. Additionally, after moving to a new community, civilian spouses of military service members often find it hard to secure work in their chosen disciplines.
Then there are the everyday expenses that everyone faces.
“Many people think the military pays for everything, but that is not true,” Schaffer said. “Military families must cover these expenses and manage the same everyday costs we all do for groceries, home repairs, auto insurance, education and day care.”
All of these issues led Schaffer to act.
Partnering with the Military Support Alliance of New Jersey, a volunteer organization dedicated to improving the lives of service members and their families, Schaffer sought support from businesses and organizations across the state.
First to respond were Charline Neigel and Ralph Wolff, both of whom served with Schaffer on a committee addressing veterans’ mental health issues.
“I was with Michael from Step One,” said Neigel, a Keller-Williams real estate agent in West Monmouth. “We put together a series of communications programs and created what we call our ‘magic tent’ which we bring to public events to raise awareness for the program.”
Neigel helps Schaffer secure donations as well as collect and deliver food. Both say they use their own trucks and gas for pick-ups and deliveries.
“Michael and I are with American Legion,” said Wolff, the owner of Jersey Coast Appliances in Toms River, “and we developed a program during the pandemic to collect and dispense food to anyone who needed it.
“The Food Warrior Program evolved from these efforts.”
How to support the Food Warriors
There are three ways to help fight food insecurity at the Joint Base:
1. Make a donation by clicking here;
2. Contribute via a GoFundMe campaign here;
3. Donate money via check or money order here:
Military Support Alliance of NJ
c/o MSA Food Warriors
P.O. Box 5421
Toms River, N.J. 08754.
Schaffer’s network of supporters includes the Red Cross, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, various Elks Lodge, the U.S. Post Office, the Girl Scouts and Center State Hospital.
Schaffer emphasizes that “all donations – 100 percent of them – go directly to purchasing and providing food to our warriors.”
The impact of the program has been huge.
Schaffer has amassed more than $52,000 in donations and delivered over 270,000 pounds of food to 600 families on the Joint Base.
And in line with Department of Defense efforts to help service members, JBMDL leadership has implemented measures to address food insecurity issues, including expanding child-care and parental-leave policies, collaborating with on-base commissaries to reduce food costs, and engaging civic organizations for support.
The Joint Base also provides warehousing space to the Food Warriors at no cost.
The problem, however, persists.
The Food Warriors program faces a continuous challenge as there is a continuous turnover of personnel.
That’s where people such as Jerry Thompson, marketing director of the Van Dyk Group, a professional service firm that focuses on real estate, insurance and financial services and another early recruit to the Food Warriors Program, come in.
“When service members are being shipped overseas, they should not have to worry about whether there is enough food on the table for their families,” he said.
Especially this time of year.
Schaffer estimates there is a weekly need of at least 4,000 pounds of food to meet the basic demand – and he said there has been a noticeable downturn in donations during the second half of 2023.
The holidays are approaching – including Veterans Day on Saturday.
“If we are going to put Thanksgiving meals on the tables for these families, we need to be collecting donations and buying food in the next few weeks,” he said.
Ray Zardetto is a freelance writer who contributes to ROI-NJ.