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Panel examines food insecurity among military veterans

Danna Mannon leans on the shoulder of Craig Barton as they say grace before beings served a meal at Father Joe's Villages in San Diego, California. (Sam Hodgson/ The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Food insecurity was a crisis among military veterans before COVID-19 and it’s become worse in the past two years, said participants in a bipartisan congressional hearing hosted by Rep. Mike Levin on Monday in Oceanside.

“Even before the pandemic … we knew that the food insecurity crisis in the country was real,” he said during the hearing at the Veterans Association of North County. Veteran families have been hit hard since then, especially women, minorities and people with disabilities.

The term “food insecurity” generally means someone doesn’t have the money or resources they need to get adequate, nutritious meals, Levin said.

Prior to the pandemic, from 2015 to 2019, more than 11 percent of working-age veterans lived in food insecure households, according to a study in 2021 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

Joining him to host the Oceanside meeting were Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, and Rep. Barry Moore, R-Montgomery, Ala. The speakers included Daniel Santibanez, chief of Nutrition and Food Services with the Department of Veterans Affairs, San Diego Healthcare System; National Food Security Program VA Coordinator Christine Going; San Diego Hunger Coalition President and CEO Anahid Brakke; and others.

Food insecurity is higher among veterans for a number of reasons, the speakers said.

Shame, stigma and fear keep a lot of veterans from seeking the assistance they need, said Brakke of the Hunger Coalition.

Some people incorrectly believe that by signing up for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that they will take food away from others, she said. SNAP is the country’s most widely used food assistance program.

“The hunger relief sector in general doesn’t work as well as it should,” Brakke said. “People fall through the cracks.”

Nutritional security is “three healthy meals a day,” she said.

“This is an economic and system issue,” she said, and she recommended that individual and household incomes be looked at more closely to determine who needs assistance.

An individual making less than $27,000 a year or a family of four making less than $55,000 a year should be considered at risk, Brakke said, especially in the San Diego area where the cost of housing is higher than most other places.

Veterans living in rural communities have higher rates of food insecurity than those in urban areas, studies show. Employment issues, a tighter labor market, and higher costs for food and services in those communities could be among the reasons for that, said Matthew Rabbitt, a USDA research economist.

San Diego County, with the second-largest population of California counties after Los Angeles, has 16 different Marine, Navy and Coast Guard installations, said Rick Wanne, director of self-sufficiency services for the county Health and Human Services Agency.

Most veterans who are food insecure also tend to have depression or some other chronic disability, he said.

“We stay in contact with our veterans,” Wanne said, providing food and counseling to those who need it. “Many families have become reliant upon alternative programs to supplement their food budget.”

Takano, the congressman from Riverside, said “the one big thing I want to see come out of this hearing” is a better understanding of why some veterans don’t get enough to eat.

“It’s just not acceptable that we have anyone who wore a uniform in the United States experiencing food insecurity, especially if they are disabled,” Takano said.


© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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