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How Telehealth is Helping Address Veteran Food Insecurity

October 13, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted veterans’ access to food, leading to greater food insecurity, and according to officials from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, telehealth is now helping to combat the issue. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has been impactful for many Americans, and we have been involved in several activities to assist food insecure veterans during this time, to include proactive outreach to veterans in their clinics with a positive food insecurity screening via video telehealth encounters,” said Anne Utech, the national director of Nutrition and Food Services at the VA, in an email to The Well News. 

Data provided by Utech shows that video telehealth encounters within Nutrition and Food Services increased over 1000% from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020. 

Approximately 11.1% of working-age veterans lived in food-insecure households from 2015-2019, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

When compared with non-veterans the research also shows that veterans are 7.4% more likely to live in a food-insecure household.

“Food insecurity is a social determinant of health and associations between mental health, homelessness and outcomes have been made in research,” said Utech.

Food insecurity has proven to increase symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation among veterans, which strengthens as food insecurity worsens, according to a recent study from a VA researcher. 

In October 2017 the Veterans Health Administration implemented a national food insecurity screening tool as part of the regular screenings that occur during VHA primary care visits. 

Most veterans are screened on an annual basis and if a veteran screens positive for food insecurity they will be referred to a social worker or dietitian for assessment of clinical risk and complications and will continue to be screened every three months thereafter. If they screen negatively, the screen resets for one year. 

The VA added a food insecurity component to its homelessness screener in 2017. In March 2021 they updated this component to include a Hunger Vital Sign, a two-question screening tool used to better identify at-risk households.

Most VA medical centers also offer a telehealth resource called the Healthy Teaching Kitchen Program which provides a virtual way for veterans to stay at home and learn to prepare healthy meals by watching their dietitian prepare a dish at a VA facility. 

“The VA’s partnership with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services is an example of a partnership that jointly addresses veterans’ hunger and food insecurity through screening veterans for insecurity during medical visits, training staff on resources for counseling for veterans with food insecurity and educating clients on new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility,” said Utech. 

In 2019, 1,300,000 veterans received SNAP benefits according to data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Utech said that aside from directing veterans to receive SNAP benefits to purchase healthy foods or screening for veteran food insecurity, the VA is also working out of 30 facilities to offer on-site food pantries or distribution programs made possible through community partnerships.

“When veterans go to VA, they are asked questions about food insecurity, and the VA recommends resources that can help out, such as food pantries like ours,” said Rich Synek, founder and executive director of Feed Our Vets and a Navy combat veteran, during a phone call with The Well News. 

Since the inception of Feed Our Vets in 2009 the non-profit has provided food to 33,593 veterans, active-duty members and their families suffering from food insecurity out of three food bank locations in Mills and Watertown located in New York, and Ashtabula, Ohio. 

The pantries resemble a mini grocery store with food products ranging from dairy to frozen meats, fruits and vegetables and canned foods, where veterans, active-duty members, and their dependents have the ability to fill their cart each month and leave knowing they won’t go hungry. 

The organization also offers Walmart gift cards, and a mobile pantry was available every third Thursday of the month at the Syracuse Vet Center but operations have currently been put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Synek said he hopes Congress will invest in the non-profit as a valuable resource for veterans to overcome food insecurity as it does not currently receive any federal, state or local funding.

He also said that it has been challenging to get veterans to overcome the stigmas associated with asking for food assistance.

“With me being a combat veteran, I know a lot of these men and women have PTSD issues, and I can understand what they are going through. That helps them come down in-person to the food pantry,” said Synek. 

Alexa Hornbeck can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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