Military families on the move can look forward to a welcome box

An organization that supports active duty service members has launched an initiative to make it easier when changing duty stations. The Military Family Advisory...

An organization that supports active duty service members has launched an initiative to make it easier when changing duty stations. The Military Family Advisory Network has partnered with some large retailers to give families a little something when they arrive at the new location. For the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Shannon Razsadin, the network’s president and executive director.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And tell us a little bit more about the Military Family Advisory Network. There’s a lot of service organizations out there, mostly for veterans. But you’re talking about the active duty folks?

Shannon Razsadin Absolutely. So we’re a ten year old organization, and what we do is we conduct research and work directly with families to identify where people need more support and then build collaborative solutions. And so we’ve done a lot of work to uncover the challenges that military and veteran families face. And then we really work to make sure that we’re not just sitting on this information, but that we can develop these collaborative solutions that will drive change where people need it most.

Tom Temin And it seems like change of regular duty station. They happen hundreds of thousands of times a year, always fraught with difficulty for families, starting with the move itself, the physical moving companies and all of this. But apparently, from what you’re doing, arrival can be a challenge.

Shannon Razsadin So we researched the issues and the causal factors that lead to, for example, food insecurity and some of the economic security challenges that families experience. And after we’ve interviewed more than 300 families who are experiencing these difficulties, we found that there were a few things that were happening in people’s lives that brought them to the greatest point of vulnerability. And one of those was a recent move. And so what we are doing is we’re working with partners to help make those moves a little bit easier and ease some of the financial burden that’s associated with the move. Start with this pilot, Fort Cavazos.

Tom Temin All right. Well, let’s tell us what they get. What you organized here to present them with.

Shannon Razsadin So when families arrive at Fort Cavazos, they will have the opportunity to receive a pantry starter kit. And what that is, is it’s this box that’s filled with about $150 worth of things that you have to throw away or replace every time that you move. And while so many of the move related expenses are covered, there are things that are out of pocket that people do have to lean into their budget to figure out every time that you move. And when that happens every two and a half years, it creates this constant restart that can put people behind the eight ball a bit when it comes to their finances, not to mention things like paying first and last month’s rent. And so when people figure out they arrived at Fort Cavazos, we’re getting them these things that they might need. But then also we’re helping them plug into local resources. As an organization, we believe that oftentimes it’s not a case of if the resource that provide support is there, but it’s more so if people are aware of it. And so when you’re living this transient life and moving on average every two and a half years, it can be difficult to plug in to resources. And so we’re creating this dignified mechanism to provide support and help people connect locally when they move.

Tom Temin And so in that kit, our food and household items like mops and that kind of thing.

Shannon Razsadin Everything from shower liners to shelf stable items. The thing is that we might not think about, but when you arrive, it’s oh gosh, I forgot about blank. Things like it’s how difficult it can be to create those first few meals when your household goods have not arrived yet. And so we’re really trying to make life a little bit easier and let people know that we’re with them every step of the way. We want this transition to be as easy as we possibly can, and to help people connect with those local resources so that they can, as seamlessly as possible, integrate to their new home.

Tom Temin Fort Cavazos is the, and I’m reading from their website, the Army’s premier installation to train and deploy heavy forces. It sounds like a lot of people go through there in the basic type of training, and it sounds like a lot of the people that go through there are probably at the lower ranks in the lower paid ranks. Is that why you chose that location for this program?

Shannon Razsadin That’s exactly why. And when we looked at food insecurity, we saw that around Fort Cavazos had the highest frequency of food insecurity. And so we know that people there are, in some cases, are having a hard time making ends meet. And so we wanted the data to drive where we started this program. And that is why we chose Fort Cavazos.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Shannon Razsadin. She’s president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. Sounds like you know something a little bit about being a military member or spouse that gets moved?

Shannon Razsadin I do. My husband and I got married, and then immediately we moved overseas to Rota, Spain. And the culture shock, both from the perspective of moving to an openness location and then figuring out what life as a military spouse looks like, it can be hard. And so I’m really honored to do this work. Most of us, the Military Family Advisory Network, our military connected. And so we bring an authentic approach to the work that we do. And we’re really proud to serve the community and integrate ways to make sure that what we are doing is actually driving impact and driving change. So we really build in rigorous program evaluation into the work that we do to make sure that families get the help that they need, because at the end of the day, families do not care who the support comes from. They care that they get the support that they need. And so we’re focused on being that conduit and helping people navigate every phase of military life.

Tom Temin And you have participation from Tyson Food and Walmart. I guess between those, there’s lots of chicken to eat and everything else you could need in life. And are they donating these materials into these boxes?

Shannon Razsadin So the support looks very different depending on who the partner is. So you mentioned Tyson Foods and Walmart. They are really providing the funding to get this pilot off the ground. We also just announced a partnership with Instacart. And so when families are arriving, they’re asked to take a brief survey. And if they screen is food insecure, they are going to be able to get food support from Instacart. Again, creating these dignified solutions to help people navigate the challenges that they’re experiencing. And so we believe that through smart partnerships, we can make one plus one equal three. And we’re really honored to have these incredible partners doing this work alongside of us, because the end of the day moves are difficult, and we’re all here to make it a little bit easier for these families.

Tom Temin And we have volunteers that are stuffing boxes and that kind of thing.

Shannon Razsadin Our partners have been incredible. And so we’ve teamed up with the Armed Services YMCA and the Cohen Clinic. They are distributing the boxes, but we are working with an organization called a merger, and they are putting the boxes together at their warehouse. And we’re really proud of just the warmth these boxes exude, not just from the things that are inside, but also the care that’s going into putting these kits together for families. And what’s important to note is that this is the first phase of this work, and will be rolling out the next several phases over the course of this year, and we’re very excited to help really address these left of crisis experiences for families.

Tom Temin Yeah. My question is, can this scale? Because when you start looking at all the possible military installations, you’ve got a pretty big challenge here.

Shannon Razsadin It can scale. And that’s really why we’ve taken the intentionality that we have. And so what we are doing right now is we’re testing and learning a lot. And from there we’ll take a look at our data. We just closed a survey in December to figure out where is the next location that needs the greatest support. We’ll scale to that location and grow from there. At the end of the day. As an organization, we’re focused on being the catalyst. And so we’re really hoping to create the proof of concept and then really, see where it goes. But we really are invested in making sure that this works, making sure we have the data that backs the impact of the program and growing it because families need the support and they turn to different places for support. And so there’s not a one size fits all solution. But if we can leverage these welcome kits, smart technology and smart partnerships, we really feel that we can help a lot of families.

Tom Temin And by the way, how do you discover which bases have high levels of food insecurity? How do you define that and how do you discover how many people are affected by it?

Shannon Razsadin Sure. So we use the USDA six items, short form food security scale in our research. And because we own our research start to finish, we are able to dissect our data down to the zip code level. And so that tells us which locations have the highest frequency of food insecurity. That is what informed the work that we did about our Million Meals challenge. We hosted food distribution events at the locations where we saw the highest frequency. So that was Fort Liberty and that was Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, the Norfolk area, and Fort Cavazos. And so we’re really committed to letting the data tell us where to go and what to do. And that’s because we own that research, and because that survey has such a significant response, it allows us to really make informed decisions.

Tom Temin And do you find good cooperation on the part of commanding officers and the apparatus that’s in place already? This place is hundreds of thousands of acres. There’s lots of stuff going on, but you find that they’ll let you fit in to the flow of people arriving?

Shannon Razsadin So since the taking care of people and initiatives that have been rolled out from OSD and the Department of Defense, we have seen a lot of great support at the local level, and we continue to lean on that. We continue to be partners. And we don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. We want to help complement the existing work that is there. And we also recognize that 70% of military families are living off installation. And so how do we leverage the local community and make sure that people are plugged in to what they need, regardless of where they are? So how do we meet families where they are? And that’s a really important question that takes a public private partnership approach.

Tom Temin So if a soldier and their family move in next door, bring over a plate of brownies and maybe a few cans of tuna fish.

Shannon Razsadin You know, it couldn’t hurt. And I think that we rely so much in some cases on technology, but it’s that warm interpersonal connection that I know so many of us miss in a post-pandemic era. I think that’s very important. And as we look at the data, the data reinforces that. We know that families who are experiencing food insecurity are more likely to experience loneliness. And so these are things that create complex, interconnected challenges. And so we’re really, again, working to get left of the issues so that we can ultimately prevent things like food insecurity in the military community.

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