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VA Salt Lake City nourishes souls, improves lives through the Veterans Food Pantry

Veterans Food Pantry fully stocked with essentials
Since reopening in December 2022, the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System's Food Pantry has helped hundreds of Veterans put food on their tables.

Food insecurity is a global issue significantly impacting millions, including Veterans right here in the Beehive State. The Veterans Food Pantry at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City is addressing this pressing issue.

Motivated by personal experience:

Retired U.S. Army Captain Steven Prater oversees the Veterans Food Pantry, and for him, it's personal.

"My family was poor. My mom really tried, but I know firsthand what it's like not having enough to eat," said Prater. "In fact, when the Army recruiter promised me three hots and a cot, it's all I needed to hear. I signed up!"

Today, his unique life experiences fuel his work as a Food Security Program Coordinator.

Local response to a growing issue:

With the demand for services multiplying, the Veterans Food Pantry has become a crucial support system for Veterans.

"We started with 200 Veterans in June, which soared to 453 by September," said Prater. "We've helped over 2,000 Veterans in 2023. Our data reveals that 20% are homeless, 40% are low-income single parents, and 15% rely on food stamps."

Unfortunately, many Veterans and active-duty service members struggle to feed their families. A study by Feeding America found one in nine working-age Veterans lived in households with food insecurity, and one in four active-duty service members experienced food insecurity.

"Female Veterans, Veterans with disabilities, and unemployed Veterans are more likely to face hunger due to low wages, lack of affordable housing, mental health issues, service-related disabilities, and systemic discrimination," said Prater.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a federal program that could help more Veterans facing hunger.

"Many will avoid seeking help due to unclear eligibility or shame, but they deserve understanding and support," said Prater. "Military families may also face hunger due to lower salaries, high unemployment rates for military spouses, high living costs near military bases, and ineligibility for food assistance programs."

Real-life impact:

To receive help from the Veterans Food Pantry, a Veteran must be eligible for VA health care, unlike community food pantries that may have income limits.

"If a Veteran isn't enrolled in VA health care and seeks help through the pantry, we're going to feed them and help to get them enrolled," said Prater. "We'll work with the Veteran and their health care team to screen for factors known as social determinants of health, and food security significantly impacts a Veteran's health."

Prater shares the success story of a previously homeless Veteran who is thriving in a Veterans apartment complex thanks to help from the Veterans Food Pantry and his care team.

He emphasizes that even Veterans receiving service-connected benefits or other aid may still need help with food insecurity.

Expanding the outreach:

While still in development, Prater aims to expand the Veterans Food Pantry by partnering with a mobile food pantry to reach community-based outpatient clinics and Veterans in their homes.

Additionally, he is involved in a pilot study for a healthy produce prescription program, collaborating with the Rockefeller Foundation, About Fresh, VA Houston Healthcare System, and VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System.

A mission beyond food:

As a licensed clinical social worker, Prater is excited about expanding the Veterans Food Pantry, which aligns with his professional goals.

"The pantry is more than just handing out food; it's about nourishing souls and improving Veterans' lives," said Prater. "For me, it's not just a job. It's my mission.”

Please find a Veterans Food Pantry near you and inform your health care team if you are experiencing food insecurity. VA can help.

Jesus Flores is a writer and editor on the VISN 19 Creative Task Force and a Marine Corps Veteran.

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