Veterans and hunger: Finding solutions, growing partnerships

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ARLINGTON — Local and state professionals passionate for veterans' well-being and local advocates for food security met last week, discussing how food programs are already helping veterans in need and their families, and exploring opportunities for future collaboration.

The Hunger Council of Bennington County, a local program under the auspices of Hunger Free Vermont, hosted the two-hour meeting at Dunlap Hall, the former Methodist Church building. Representatives from veterans' organizations gave an overview of the services available to veterans in the state and in Bennington County and added their insights about the state of food security and the social safety net. Local members of the council, along with Hunger Free Vermont state staff, spoke of available services and helped come up with possibilities for future collaboration.

Richard Gallo, of the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program, said there are more than 46,600 veterans in Vermont; 3,432 of these are in Bennington County. Statewide, just 29,341 of eligible veterans are enrolled with the Veterans Administration; in Bennington County, 45 percent of its 3,432 eligible veterans are enrolled with the VA.

The average veteran in Vermont is male, 65 to 84 years old, and served in the Vietnam War, Gallo said.

The Outreach Program was created about 10 years ago through funds secured by Vermont's congressional delegation. This enabled development of a program to conduct ongoing outreach primarily to combat veterans and their families. Trained program specialists check in with veterans to identify any potential needs, including issues reintegrating into the community, and help the veterans get the services that will help them.

The program had an outreach specialist in Bennington, but he held one of three positions cut in September due to budget considerations, said Andre Wing, also of the Outreach Program. The person based in Rutland now covers from the Middlebury area south down to Pownal, Gallo said.

Gallo said that among the program partners of the Outreach Program are non-profit organizations such as open-door missions, community cupboards and other food programs. He is very familiar with programs in Rutland but asked about such services in Bennington. In response, others present told him of the interfaith Kitchen Cupboard Food Pantry, the Harvest House Soup Kitchen, and HIS Pantry at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church, all in Bennington. They also mentioned that BROC Community Action has a satellite office in Bennington.

"The one thing for Bennington that you should be aware of is that a lot of us in the service industry really depend on the interfaith community network, too," said Leigh Smith, healthcare for homeless veterans coordinator for Bennington County. "They do a lot of wonderful jobs coordinating meals that a lot of folks utilize."

Family Assistance Centers

The Family Assistance Centers (FAC) program is meant "to provide resource referral and support assistance to service members and their families, of all military branches."

"When we talk about the 'six essential services,' and community resources and community outreach as one of our essential services, that is a very broad, all-encompassing term," including state and local services available to the community at large, said Glory O'Neil, of the FAC program. "It's exactly that: nutrition, food shelves, shelters, crisis (support) — whatever the case may be."

Many of those the FACs work with, especially current service members, do not have veteran status and drill just one weekend a month with the National Guard. Wing estimated that there are about 3,000 active Army National Guard members and about 1,000 active Air National Guard members in Vermont.

"A lot of those soldiers have families and also work very low-paying jobs and have a hard time making ends meet living in a state like Vermont," O'Neil said. "And so those are the people that we see coming to us who are running out of money quick and need those food shelves and need those community resources. So that's why we're here trying to figure out exactly in our areas, in the areas that we're new to, what's available for those soldiers that don't have access to, and their families that don't have access, to the VA benefits and a lot those other benefits that are available to some of our other service members."

Kate Hendrickson, also of the Family Assistance Centers program, said it seems like there's a very young population of service members and their families in the southern part of Vermont.

"For instance, this last drill weekend, out of that drill weekend, I was referred a soldier who needs tires for his vehicle, around here there's no public transportation for a lot of these people, so if he can't get tires on his vehicle to get to work, then he loses his job and then it just spirals from there," she said. "And another soldier was faced with a situation where he's living with a family member, they are going to be displaced, so he was actually going to be residing in his car if he doesn't get a place to live.

"These are oftentimes young people who join the military to really get their life in order because they maybe didn't have a lot of support. And then they come out of their training, they're not eligible for really any VA benefits or anything," Hendrickson said. "But they don't have a job and they don't have good place to live and they are not making ends meet well."

Three veterans services personnel from the Bennington Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) attended the meeting. In addition to Leigh Smith, they included Joe Bisson, RN case manager for the Bennington, Rutland and Brattleboro CBOCs and Pam Trites, staff nurse at the Bennington CBOC.

The Bennington VA clinic is small, providing about 1,800 total patients primary care and mental health care. There is a big push on tele-health care, similar to video communication by Skype, because of transportation issues, Trites said.

Smith deals with the mental health and homelessness side of the Bennington CBOC, which has three therapists available to see patients. She frequently gets referrals from homeless shelters. She sees lack of employment opportunities and limited transportation as barriers to veterans' well-being, though veterans come to the CBOC not only from Vermont but from New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.

"We also are looking at food insecurity. We ask the questions, 'have you ever been worried about food in the last three months?' 'Gone without eating?' as well as the homeless piece," she said. "I can say for the folks that I tend to work with: they depend a lot on the food shelves in Bennington County."

There's also a beneficial social aspect with the Meals on Wheels program or with the meals served at the Bennington Senior Center, "which we really encourage, especially for our older folk," she said.

Smith said there is a small percentage of veterans who refuse to go to food shelves out of pride. "And as far as I can glean, and it's going to be a very blanket statement, but there's the feeling that, 'there are others that could use this service more than me. And I'll be just fine,' " she said. Other veterans might have issues with a very crowded food pantry waiting room.

Walmart and Price Chopper gift cards are helpful for the homeless team to give out. Smith also takes people to the grocery store. Indeed, she took a person grocery shopping the morning of the meeting "because there is no transportation in Arlington to get to a good grocery store. I would describe this as a food desert."

Coming from the Detroit area, Smith said, "I know what food deserts look like and there are certain aspects of our county that are very difficult to access quality food."

Vermont Veterans' Home

Col. Al Faxon, chief operating officer, and Gary Yelle, admissions coordinator and marketing director, said the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington had started a small community garden on its 82 acres of land a couple of years ago. It consists of about 12 to 16 plots that are 18 by 20 feet and the home tills it for the growing season, as well as tools and water. Last year, only three plots were utilized.

"It's supposed to be veteran-related, veteran-spouse, but we really don't care," Faxon said."If they're in the veteran family circle somewhere, they can come and have their own garden. It's been slow building."

Liz Ruffa, project director of Northshire Grows and a board member of the Vermont Food Bank, recently met with staff at the Veterans' Home and discussed providing the facility with crops grown by local veteran farmers.

"When you go to the campus and you see how much land you have and what specific growing opportunities there are, I think that there are just lots of interesting opportunities for partnerships," she said, "or to work with veterans especially that are growing food to get this food to the people who need it the most."

Potential safety net cuts

Erica Campbell, a member of Vt. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' staff focusing on agriculture, food, rural development and transportation, said she would report back to the senator what happened at the meeting. "Right now, we're really still focused on taxes, the tax bill," she said, noting that she didn't need to tell those attending the details of the controversial bill. "We're just facing some massive cuts to a lot of social safety net programs, potentially. If it does go through, they will be looking for $1.5 trillion to cut."

The next Bennington Hunger Council meeting will be held on Wednesday, March 28, with the Center for Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) in Bennington.

Reach Mark Rondeau at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com or by phone at 802-447-7567, ext. 138.


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