It's shocking to think that even in the richest country in the world, over 300,000 of our elderly Veterans - men and women - who bravely defended our nation at home and abroad are unable to afford enough food to feed themselves or their families. According to the organization Feed Our Vets, often, the families of elderly Veterans don't even realize how little food their relatives are living on. Senior Veterans may also avoid signing up for food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) out of embarrassment or the incorrect belief that accepting food assistance may jeopardize their VA benefits. In addition to financial barriers, there can also be a variety of issues stemming from "mental illness and education" among Veterans, according to Christine Going, Chief of Nutrition and Food Service at the Northport, NY Veterans Affairs Medical Center, underlying the food access challenges they face.
Unfortunately, hunger and food insecurity often come along with other diet-related health problems. Known as the hunger and obesity paradox, a number of researchers have explored the link between the lack of regular access to adequate food (food insecurity) and increased risk of obesity. Both problems are tied to, and exacerbated by poverty. Today, the VA reports that 78 percent of Veterans are either overweight or obese and a quarter of all VA patients suffer from diabetes - much higher than the nine percent of all Americans who have diabetes and the 67 percent of all US adults over 20 who are overweight or obese.
NY FreshConnect Checks Help at Risk Veterans Purchase Local, Healthy Food
Going is particularly concerned about these issues. "I do not want to minimize the clinical impact that food insecurity has on our Veterans, most notably the ones with diabetes," she told me in a written interview. "There is significant concern with this population and their ability to effectively manage their blood sugar in the absence of a steady, reliable and healthy food supply. The impact of poorly controlled diabetes is well understood, [and] it is in all our best interests to try and prevent these problems by managing the availability of food and education early [in] the lives of our Veterans, with the hope of preventing the negative outcomes we see all too often."
To address these issues, New York and several other states have begun to implement innovative local food programs specifically tailored to Veterans. In 2011, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo created the FreshConnect Checks program, which provides incentives to Veterans and other individuals enrolled in the SNAP program to use their benefits at participating farmers' markets. Through this program, state funding used to help Veterans eat healthier is put straight into the pockets of New York farmers, helping to bolster rural communities and support local farms. Last year, Governor Cuomo made more than $425,000 available for the program through the state budget, as well as an additional $500,000 in funding for a FreshConnect Food Box program that provides weekly shares of fresh local produce at reduced rates to communities in the Finger Lakes region and New York City.
Recently, through the 2017-2018 state budget, Governor Cuomo committed to increasing funding for its FreshConnect Checks Program to $625,0000, with $100,000 set aside specifically for Veterans. "We are proud to provide our Veterans, service members and their families the opportunity to purchase fresh, local produce through the State's FreshConnect Checks program" said State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball when reached for comment. "Our goal at the Department is to increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables for all New Yorkers and promote our farmers. Since first making checks available to Veterans in 2014 as part of a pilot program, we have expanded our commitment to the program by increasing the level of funding. This has helped us expand our reach to help even more Veterans and families looking for healthy alternatives while also helping farmers connect to new markets."
Christine Going, whose Division of Veterans' Affairs Office in Northport, New York distributes FreshConnect Checks, says the program is well liked among the Veterans she works with. "We run a weekly farmers' market at our facility, where we have collaborated with NY State to distribute their FreshConnect checks. These checks provide $20 vouchers to Veterans to be used to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, etc. at farmers' markets. During our weekly markets we provide cooking demonstrations and samples of healthy items that are being sold by our vendors. The combination of exposing the Veterans to locally grown food and providing them with samples of easy, healthy ways to prepare the food has proven to be very popular with both our Veterans and staff."
In addition to the farmers' market, the VA also administers a variety of food programs to inmprove their clients health outcomes both locally and nationally. As a local example, the VA on Long Island, New York collaborates with community partners like Island Harvest and Long Island Cares to increase the availability of food to vulnerable Veterans through a large network of food pantries, healthy cooking classes and a community garden that provides fresh produce to a variety of VA programs. Nationally, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service is also working with the Veterans' Affairs system to provide electronic benefit transfer (EBT) equipment to the 49 farmers' markets located near VA hospitals and clinics to allow Veterans and other low income consumers to use their SNAP benefits at these markets.
Veteran Farmers' Market Programs Across the Country Are on the Rise and Ripe for Expansion
Based on the success of the New York program, initiatives connecting farmers and Veterans are gaining traction across the country. In 2012, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture created its Veteran Farmers' Market Nutrition program by allocating $25,000 from Connecticut's Specialty Crop Block Grant program from USDA to fund it. Through the program, Veterans receive vouchers that can be redeemed at participating farmers' markets in exchange for local produce. In order to qualify, Veterans must register at the local Veterans Support Center, providing an opportunity for Veterans in need to also utilize other valuable resources such as housing assistance and membership to the local food pantry. In West Virginia, nutritionists at the Martinsburg West Virginia VA Medical Center are helping low income veterans with diet-related diseases access healthy, local food by doubling SNAP benefits for their patients at the medical center's farmers' market using funding awarded through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program created in the 2014 Farm Bill. And in Washington DC, Community Foodworks has launched a new VA Farmers Market Finder that allows Veterans, social workers and policy makers to locate farmers' markets near Veterans' facilities nationwide to encourage food insecure, high health-risk Veterans to find local, healthy produce.
Given their popularity and success, these innovative pilot Veteran farmers' market nutrition programs led by Veterans' Affairs nutritionists and state agricultural commissioners are ripe for expansion. One potential opportunity for scaling up these programs to a national level is the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill which already provides funding for the popular Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. As Christine Going said, "I believe the work of both the local and national groups addressing Food Security for our Veterans are on the brink of making a real difference in the lives of our heroes!"