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Veterans face food security issues. Here’s how communities can help.

Human Development and Family Studies Military Family Research Institute Nutrition Science

Monday, April 29th, 2019

Nearly one in four U.S. veterans faces food security issues. These are the people who have served overseas, responded to disaster areas and sworn to protect their country.

A recent study by Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute at 10 faith-based food pantries in Indiana and Kentucky – five pantries in each state – suggests there is promise for underserved veterans and their families.

Through its Reaching Rural Veterans initiative, the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) developed a pilot program to evaluate resource and food security in rural veterans. It is the first such study, and results were published in the Journal of Public Health.

Reaching Rural Veterans helps local food pantries develop and host monthly resource fairs that bring together organizations to make sure veterans have access to veterans’ associations, benefits, housing, health care and other needs.

To participate in the program, the food pantry staff was asked to plan resource fairs and complete cultural competency training, including awareness of issues facing veterans. Purdue’s MFRI and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences led the training.

“Working with pantries is cost-effective because they already have physical locations and staff,” said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, a professor of human development and family studies, and director of the MFRI. “Several pantries still continue to do these events.”

The Salvation Army in Anderson, Indiana, is one of the sites that continues with a regular resource fair and food distribution. It became the site after another organization discontinued hosting the program.

According to databases, there are more than 9,000 veterans in Indiana’s Madison County. Shelly DeLong, social services coordinator for The Salvation Army in Anderson, said the program has helped veterans who have served in war or peace, but most of them are 50-plus years old, have health issues or have a disability.

DeLong was a member of the initial community work group in Madison County and has been working with volunteers to draw more veterans into the event.

On April 5, DeLong and a group of volunteers served beef and noodles, green beans, mashed potatoes, cake and drinks to 23 veterans and two family members who came to The Salvation Army for a resource fair. In addition to the meal, fellowship and the occasional war story, the veterans and their families were able to leave the event with food and appointments to address their various issues.

yellow and red peppers

 “It is good to see them come in, get checked and get access to resources. Most of them do use the food pantry,” DeLong said.

“One of the surprises was that we had contact with so many veterans,” MacDermid Wadsworth said. The goal, originally 300 participants, was easily surpassed, with 1,094 veterans — 430 in Indiana and 664 in Kentucky. “That was the reason we did this, as those veterans earned the right to get resources.”

The study saw improvements in food pantry staff’s knowledge of veterans’ needs, as well as increased participation by veterans.

Of the 1,094 participants, 234 veterans participated in follow-ups regarding food security, social services and health conditions. The group discovered the need to improve dietary intake, which would help with chronic health conditions. In addition, the results could lead to overall health improvements if veterans have access to proper programs and benefits.

 “By developing Reaching Rural Veterans, we are trying to extend the front door of the Department of Veterans Affairs to these rural areas,” MacDermid Wadsworth said.

The study was a collaborative work by members of Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences, including MacDermid Wadsworth; Andrea Wellnitz, a project manager at MFRI; Breanne Wright, a doctoral student; and Heather Eicher-Miller, an associate professor of nutrition science.

This work was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Rural Health (VA251-15-C-0041). 

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