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South Texas VA takes food insecurity head on

Three South Texas dietitians are standing together holding food items they collected for food insecure Veterans.

Devastation, hopelessness, depression. I just want to give up. Maybe I can go a week without eating and not letting anyone know. I’ll just drink water. It’s more important than food. Am I going to starve? Am I going to die?

These are the words of Air Force and Marine Corps Veteran Joseph McDonald and how he describes the thoughts that are brought on by hunger. Despite serving his country during an honorable military career, McDonald is food insecure.

Joseph is a prime example of why the South Texas Veterans Health Care System has recently started a food insecurity program and hired only the second program manager in the VA network, registered dietitian, Cristina Elizondo.

Elizondo started her position June 4, but she had already laid the foundation. “Amber Miracle [social worker] and I became co-chairs for the Veterans Community Partnership (VCP). We are using this membership in the group as a platform for food insecurity,” Elizondo said. 

Frequent visitors to the news ticker, food insecurity, or how Elizondo refers to it, “food security” to keep a positive connotation for treatment purposes, has been getting more coverage but is still misunderstood.  “Food insecurity is not having access to nutritious foods, it’s not having food at one time,” Elizondo said. “It is having sustainable food.”

Elizondo hit the ground running, attending community food insecurity workgroups with San Antonio Metro Health, looking at Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program grants for benchmarks and best practices.

The whole idea of bringing a program to South Texas was the result of the Chief of Nutrition & Food Services, Maria Worley’s attendance at a national food insecurity conference. “Ms. Worley is an innovator, and this position exists because of her,” Elizondo said. “She saw a huge gap and saw demand and that we were not doing enough for that demand,” Elizondo said.

“We identified the need to improve our program for Veterans in STVHCS with a position that will coordinate all efforts from screening to getting food in the hands of the Veterans,” Worley said.

Elizondo already started an internal food drive and made food boxes to spread across the units. A food insecure Veteran will go home with groceries.

Elizondo says this effort will take a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach. “Social work service, that is really their area where they identify all of those food insecure patients,” Elizondo said. “We are working on getting better handoffs to the dietitians by reducing those silos we work in.”

McDonald was one of those Veterans identified as food insecure. “I went through the interview process, and after that I took part in the cooking program,” McDonald said.

The program he is referring to is the Healthy Teaching Kitchen (HTK) run by registered dietitian Tamara Sugarek who explains what HTK is about. “The practical application component of HTK provides education with hands-on cooking techniques that creates a supportive environment for Veterans to learn with their peers,” Sugarek said.

“They are able to take the skills they learn back to their home and cook independently for their families,” Sugarek said.   

Sugarek, who has run the HTK for a few years said the biggest feedback she gets from Veterans is their surprise that they can make simple, healthy dishes taste good. That fact was also an eye-opener for McDonald who grew up in Louisiana and is used to very flavorful dishes.

“In these classes, there is so much they have taught me,” McDonald said. “I went in thinking I could cook, but I found out there were a lot of different techniques that I did not know.”

Those techniques would play a big role in McDonald’s future well-being.

“One month, it got to the point where I did not have finances to get any food. I could not go to the store. I was concerned how I was going to make it through the rest of the month,” McDonald said.

McDonald stared at his bare pantry and the worry began to overcome him. He remembered his HTK experience and the words of wisdom from a pastor who talked about wants versus needs.

It didn’t look promising, but McDonald did have some canned goods, some seasoning and a microwave so he got to work.

He worked through the cans, remembering his HTK lessons on balancing nutrition, and what foods have the requisite proteins and vitamins he would need. He made dish after dish, impressing himself with his creativity. He was so relieved that he was going to make it through the 30 days, he sent images of his creations to his instructor, Tamara Sugarek.

“While I was doing it, I started thinking maybe I should take some pictures of this food because it looks insanely good, so I sent them to my mom and Tamara,” McDonald said.

I would not be exaggerating when I say I thank God for the HTK because that particular month it saved my life,” McDonald said.

Elizondo has also seen the sting hunger can bring.

“When I give out the food boxes, some of them are tearful, they are happy,” Elizondo said. “This older woman patted me on the shoulder and she said I can’t wait to make my tuna fish sandwich tonight because I will be thinking about you when I do.”

If you feel you are food insecure, you are not alone. In 2021, more than 10 percent of Americans (including Veterans) were food insecure. The VA Nutrition and Food Services website has a screening tool and resources available to Veterans.





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