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Combating food insecurity, one Veteran at a time

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Emergency Food Pantry opened in December 2017. Photo by James Arrowood.

Veterans can face an array of challenges when they make the transition from active duty to civilian life.

Joining the workforce, reintegrating into their home and community, and adjusting to a different pace of life are all challenges that former Servicemembers can expect and – in many cases – prepare for as they come to the end of their military service.

Yet one obstacle no Veteran anticipates facing is food insecurity.

Sometimes called chronic hunger, food insecurity is the lack of consistent, ongoing access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. A recent study found that more than one in four OEF/OIF Veterans enrolling into the VA health care system reported having experienced food insecurity within the last year.

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center is addressing the growing public health concern of food insecurity. In December 2017, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center officially launched the Emergency Food Pantry to support the distribution of food to Veterans experiencing food insecurity.

“Improving Veterans’ health by providing nutrition education and by serving healthy foods has always been rewarding for our service,” says Charleston VA Nutrition and Food Service Chief Margaret Bradbury. “Opening the Emergency Food Pantry is a tangible way to assist our most vulnerable Veterans who are struggling with hunger, and hopefully inspires others to take action.”

In June 2016, VA partnered with Feeding America, a nonprofit organization with a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, to test a pilot program in select medical centers to address food insecurity among Veterans. When Charleston VAMC was not selected as one of the original 20 medical centers to participate in VA’s pilot program, Bradbury and her team decided that with such strong community partnerships already in place and dedicated VA staff mobilized to take on the task, the medical center was could stand up its own food pantry and the work to get the program off the ground began. These efforts would eventually materialize as the Emergency Food Pantry.

The Emergency Food Pantry is a collaboration between Charleston VA’s Nutrition and Food Service, Voluntary Service, Logistics Service, the Lowcountry Food Bank and the Tri-County Veterans Support Network. The Lowcountry Food Bank supplies low cost food, while the Tri-County Veterans Support helps manage the administrative functions of the food pantry. VA provides staffing and volunteer support.

Food insecurity is especially prevalent among Veterans who are homeless, at risk of homelessness and those who have recently moved into transitional or supportive housing. Last October, Charleston VA began including a question about food security during the homeless screening process.

To utilize the Emergency Food Pantry, Veterans must be referred by a VA mental health provider, social worker or clinical dietitian. The model serves as an entry point for VA services while providing access to VA primary and specialty care.

The Emergency Food Pantry is temporarily located on the first floor in Nutrition and Food Service, but will soon move to its permanent home in the Veterans Enrichment Center (VEC). Once referred, a volunteer escorts the Veteran to the food pantry and assists them as they select their foodstuffs. Referred Veterans can visit the Emergency Food Pantry once per three months. The food pantry is opened to referred Veterans weekly between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Soldiers’ Angels is another program that Charleston VA partners with to help combat food insecurity. Based in San Antonio, Texas, Soldiers’ Angels is a nonprofit organization that works to helps lower income Veterans get food assistance. 

Prior to October 2017, Soldiers’ Angels mobile food distributions were held at The Citadel. However, recognizing the need to reach more Veteran families, Charleston VA and Soldiers Angels partnered to hold the distribution events at the medical center, a central location that many Lowcountry Veterans are already familiar with and can travel to easily. Soldiers’ Angels hosts these distribution events monthly and interested Veterans must register ahead of time to receive assistance. Approximately 200 Veteran families receive 50 pounds of food at each distribution event.

            Studies have shown that addressing food insecurity at the point of (health) care is both efficient and effective. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center will continue its effort to ensure that no Lowcountry Veteran goes hungry.

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