Food pantries are cropping up at various VA medical centers across the country. VA providers screen patients during clinical assessments for signs of food insecurity. If Veterans are in need, food pantries supply them with a week’s worth of groceries before they leave the medical center.
This screening takes place whether the visit is for inpatient or outpatient services. In some cases, Veterans are connected with an on-site coordinator to explore other available resources.
This food pantry program is making it easier than ever for Veterans to obtain and sustain comprehensive support for their whole health. It also extends VA’s commitment to former service members beyond the point of care and takes into account the environmental contributors to a person’s well-being, known as the social determinants of health. Food security is one example of a social determinant of health. Some others that VA supports for Veterans include education, employment and housing.
Food insecurity is not only about grocery supplies. It’s also about planning, social dynamics and the competing demands that many families face.
“I remember one 32-year-old Veteran who worked at a gas station. You could just tell he was malnourished,” says Mary Julius. Julius is a registered dietitian. She also is the program manager for diabetes self-education and training for the Northeast Ohio VA Health Care System.
Ate his kid’s leftovers
“At first, he denied that he was having trouble, out of pride,” Julius said. “But when I asked him what he ate, he said he was eating whatever was left over from the food he bought his kid. We were able to provide him groceries and instructions.”
The pantry project is a public-private partnership between VA and Feeding America, which has a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks nationwide. There are 18 sites in operation, and Feeding America collaborates with VA to identify potential sites with the need and capacity for enrolling in this program.
Local facilities work through their VA Voluntary Service to make the arrangements for outside donations. As of January, the program has served more than 710,000 meals to Veterans nationwide, including options that account for dietary and health restrictions, such as diabetes.
Partnerships support Veterans’ health and well-being
This innovative resource is an example of what is possible when VA partners with community resources.
“Offering food on-site, when the Veteran is there for a visit, makes it convenient and safe for the Veteran to receive quality food and explore options to meet future needs,” said Dr. Tracy Weistreich. Weistreich is the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) acting director. “These partnerships are essential to the well-being of Veterans and support programs available through VA.”
The OCE team helps build relationships with community and national organizations that support Veterans’ health and well-being.
“When you come into the ER with an open wound, we stitch it up right away,” says Julius. “When you come in and need a bag of food, we can provide that too.”
For more information about OCE and its partnership work, visit https://www.va.gov/HEALTHPARTNERSHIPS/partnerships.asp.
Heather Luper is a social work program manager for the Office of Community Engagement (OCE).