Pockets of the veteran population are experiencing food insecurity at unusually high rates, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking steps to understand and combat the problem. It now screens veterans for hunger, and many of its facilities offer food banks onsite.
Before the sun was fully up, a crowd had already gathered in the parking lot of the VA Austin Outpatient Clinic. A truck from the Central Texas Food Bank idled nearby, as volunteers busily unloaded shipments of fruit, vegetables and meat.
One morning out of every month, the clinic hosts a pop-up food bank for veterans. It’s under the auspices of the Veterans Pantry Pilot Program, a collaboration between the VA and hunger relief network Feeding America.
Turnout is so high that veterans have to take numbers.
Diane Fike, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, came equipped with a cart and some freezer bags. She waited on the curb with ears piqued, while her dog Quinn rested on a blanket beside her.
“We get up there and they sort us out,” said Fike, gesturing toward a long table stacked with food. “They call so many at a time. Sometimes they’re very generous. I hit the jackpot once: they had a bunch of shelf-stable milk. That was great.”
For Fike, having food with a long shelf life is helpful. Money grew tight after she became disabled, and she doesn’t have a vehicle. When she needs transportation assistance, she has to give 24 hours notice.
“It’s terrible sometimes if you’re sick and you miss your ride,” she said, recalling moments when she had run low on food.
When her number was called, Fike made her way up to a long table where volunteers offered her options from different food groups.
Food Insecurity In Unexpected Places
Elderly and homeless vets have long been at risk for food insecurity, but younger veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are increasingly in need.
Social worker Kelli Garrett leads the Austin VA’s mobile food pantry.
“Here at our food pantry — and just in general working with the homeless program — it has been noticeable. An increase in the population of probably vets under 35 or so,” she said.
A University of Minnesota survey found that post-9/11 veterans in that state were also struggling to put food on the table.
Associate professor Rachel Widome led the survey, which found that 27 percent of participants had experienced food insecurity.
“That was just so much higher than the prevalence of food insecurity in the general population, which is usually around 14 or 15 percent,” she said. “I thought that it was very shocking and, honestly, quite unconscionable that such a sizable proportion of those who were sent to fight these wars were now struggling to afford food.”
Food insecure veterans tended to be unmarried, with lower incomes, and in households with children. They often reported binge drinking, tobacco use, and sleeping less. Transitioning out of the military poses unique challenges for the young, Widome said.
“Sometimes younger veterans don't have a lot of job experience — don't have as many connections in the civilian world for finding work right away,” she said. “And they might not have as much as far as savings goes.”
Screening Through Stigma
Daren Benito, a 45 year-old veteran of the first Gulf War, is just a bit older than the group Widome studied. As a single father of two, Benito wrestled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the Army, eventually falling into a period of homelessness. He said he often went hungry to feed his kids.
“I had to go days at a time just to make sure that they had a good meal on their plates. That’s another thing that also is traumatic,” he added.
Though Benito has since found housing and more stable footing, he still struggles to accept resources from places like the Austin VA food pantry.
“I still feel like a protector,” he said. “I still feel like I should be the one taking charge, taking the lead. So oftentimes it’s hard to have to yield to better judgment, to come out here and humble yourself to an experience like this. Because it just makes you feel kind of down.”
Back in October, the VA directed all of its medical facilities to start screening veterans for food insecurity as part of their routine medical care. Anne Utech, the national director for Nutrition and Food Services at the VA, says the screening is necessary — in part because of stigma.
“So, as you can imagine, this topic can be rather sensitive,” Utech said. “People don't like to bring it up. So that’s why there’s a need for healthcare providers to ask and screen for it.”
The screening question states: In the past three months, "did you ever run out of food and you were not able to access more food or have the money to buy more food?”
According to Utech, the screening is designed to catch as many positive answers as possible, and to account for non-financial factors like physical immobility and lack of transportation. When someone answers yes, that triggers intervention by a social worker, a referral to a local food bank, or help in getting federal food assistance.
So far, more than 1 million vets have been screened, and the VA is compiling information about who’s in need.
But if there’s one thing everyone is seeing, it’s an increase in demand. In both March and April, the Austin VA food pantry served more than 200 households in two hours.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame