When Wayne Arnold Sr. took the bus to the Dayton VA Medical Center for an appointment on Tuesday morning, he didn’t expect to run into his friend picking up groceries at a food pantry.
In a heavy, mud-colored coat, he leaned back on a wooden table as his friend chose from bananas, corn flakes, fresh bread rolls and meat at the Dayton VA Food Pantry. Arnold, a graying 58-year-old Army veteran, said he’d think about taking advantage of the program next time around. Suffering from a back injury, he said it’s been difficult to find employment.
“My wife is very sick. She had two surgeries,” he said. “When you get to be older, it’s harder to find work. I can’t do physical jobs like before. I just want to take care of myself, just me and my wife. I’m not looking for hand-outs.”
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The Dayton VA is addressing food insecurity in the area veteran community with a new food pantry program. The program started last month, with its third event this week. More than 100 veterans waited in line on Tuesday to choose from fresh produce, snacks, bread and proteins.
About 90 percent of the veterans coming to collect food were not in the Dayton Foodbank System, Dayton VA Director Jill Dietrich told the Dayton Daily News. “They hadn’t reached out for their food needs before. They came to the Dayton VA because they trust us.”
The program runs in partnership with the Dayton Foodbank, registering veterans into the nonprofit’s system upon arrival. Nearly 25,000 pounds of food were given to veterans and their families within the first two events. More than 600 people from veteran households were reached during the first two events too, with the impact growing this week.
“We’re doing it every two weeks right now. We’re looking at the needs of our veterans, and possibly moving it to every week in the new year,” Dietrich said. “I do think veterans are a traditionally proud group of individuals. If it’s not specifically targeted toward them and it’s from an organization that they don’t have familiarity with, they won’t necessarily feel comfortable reaching out to get the food they need.”
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A study by Cambridge University shows one in four veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq wars reported food insecurity — or a lack of access to sufficient food for a healthy lifestyle — in the past calendar year with 12 percent reporting “very low food insecurity.”
Veterans qualify for the pantry under the guidelines of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Emergency Food Assistance Program. For example, a household of one must have a current gross household income of $24,279 or less. A household of five must have a household income of less than $58,839.
Medical professionals say food insecurity can lead to long-lasting health issues.
Veterans who suffer from a multitude of conditions, like diabetes, fail to keep a regimented diet because they can’t always afford food at the end of the month, Dr. Brian Burke, chief of Dayton VA Diabetes Service, said. Research from the National Institute of Health found risk for hypoglycemia admission increased 27 percent in the last week of the month compared to the first week in the low-income population.
“Food is part of the treatment plan, and healthy food is even more important,” Burke said. “VA research has confirmed that people are taking certain medications all month long. If they’re on a stipend that comes monthly from the federal government, they can run out of money at the end of the month. Their diet actually changes that last week.”
Marty Brown, a 64-year-old Air Force veteran, pointed at apples and oranges to be placed in his box. A volunteer set a dozen blue and red cupcakes in his box.
“I don’t need the whole tray,” he said. Next, he selected Ritz crackers, two boxes of corn flakes, a bottle of spray cheese and bread rolls. “No Sriracha sauce. I don’t want any of that.”
Brown lives with his wife and 10-year-old granddaughter in Trotwood. He retired after 38 years of employment at the Dayton VA — working in security, and later, transportation. But he’s on a fixed income, and the service helps feed his family in a pinch.
“I think I’ll come back,” he said.
For other veterans, hunger is far more complex than merely making ends meet.
The Cambridge study shows that younger veterans — those who had served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 — reported higher levels of food insecurity.
“Food-insecure veterans tended to be younger, not married or partnered, living in households with more children, earning lower incomes, had a lower final military pay grade, were more likely to use tobacco, reported more frequent binge drinking and slept less, compared with those who were food secure,” according to the study.
Dr. Diana Brostow, a Colorado-based health research science specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Dayton Daily News that “food insecurity” is often used as an umbrella term for how and why people to decide what to eat. People suffering with mental health issues — like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression or anxiety — are often not in a psychological state to engage in nutritional self-care, she said.
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Some cases of increased food insecurity among veterans have been associated with depression, difficulty with daily activities, smoking, a psychiatric diagnosis and depression. Brostow would like to see an integration of rehabilitative services and nutritional education occur at VA facilities.
Much is still unknown about the lifecycle of food insecurity and how it will impact younger veterans in the next several decades, she said. VA researchers are hoping to study it more aggressively in coming years.
“Veterans are proud, and they have a reason to be proud,” Brostow said. “Food insecurity has a lot of stigma associated with it. It’s hard for people to ask for help. Food is such a basic, primal need. For a person to say, ‘Hey, I’m having trouble feeding myself,’ takes a lot of courage.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
• Dayton Food Pantry Dates: Dec. 18; Jan. 8, Jan. 22 from noon to 2 p.m.
• Food Pantry is located in Building 305
• Veterans may receive food assistance once every 30 days
• More information is available at 937-267-3307