When COVID-19 first hit communities across the U.S., food banks faced unprecedented, significant increases in requests for food assistance. Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, and the entire Feeding America network, has worked to meet the needs of individuals and families, many of whom are struggling with food insecurity for the first time.
Among those waiting in miles-long lines at food distributions are veterans and active duty military members and their loved ones.
It is unacceptable that those who once served or who are serving our county today should have to worry about where their next meal will come from. Yet each year, thousands of veterans, as well as active duty members and their families, seek help to put food on table from Second Harvest and our network of food assistance partners serving communities across 18 Northwest North Carolina counties.
We recently spoke with Cindy Jones, a volunteer leader at the Veterans and Community Market, a partner program of Second Harvest Bank operating out of Union Grove United Methodist Church in Iredell County. “Veterans from World War II through the Iraq war and all those in between come to our program,” Cindy explained. “About one-third of the people we see are veterans in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. About another third are widows of veterans Other are community members with no military affiliations who, these days, since COVID, are coming to us because they have no income, zero.”
According to Cindy, nearly 100% the people coming through the market pantry who are new to the program have had their incomes impacted by the pandemic. For many of these families, there is no clear end in sight to their struggles and, for certain, recovery for many local families and our communities will not happen quickly.
Since the pandemic, veterans and others coming to the market pantry must now drive through rather than come inside. Cindy says that this has been challenging on many levels, but most especially because of the missed opportunities for the veterans to connect with one another.
“The socializing aspect has always been important, as important as the food really, especially for those who live alone and are often very isolated. Before, everyone would come in, go through and select what they wanted from the market area, then sit together over cups of coffee, sometimes for hours. It’s really very sad, but it’s just not safe right now.”
Cindy and what she describes as “an absolutely superb and dedicated group of fellow volunteers” are the heart of the Veteran and Community Market, which is, in turn, part of a collaborative effort to provide supportive services for veterans living in Iredell County. The Veterans and Community Market is one of four food assistance programs connected with the Piedmont Veterans Assistance Council (PVAC).
The all-volunteer, mostly veteran-led PVAC officially became a non-profit organization about four and half years ago with a mission to provide assistance and support to Veterans and their families living in the Piedmont Region of North Carolina by offering free transportation to medical appointments, providing free meals and groceries from several locations, and assisting homeless veterans participating in the Veterans Transitional Housing program. Fifth Street Ministries, another of Second Harvest’s partner agencies serving Iredell County, runs the transitional housing program, along with a community kitchen meal program, and other support programs.
According to data shared by our colleagues at Fifth Street Ministries, there are 25,000 veterans in Iredell County, and one in four homeless individuals is a veteran. The Ministry was founded by Gary and Patti West to provide food, clothing, and many other ancillary services to those in need which has always included veterans. The campus in downtown Statesville, NC, sits in the middle of one of our poorest neighborhoods. The abandoned houses, overgrown, lots and memorials to fallen gang members only hint at the troubles it sees. The Ministry is committed to walking alongside young veterans and others who need support to rebuild their lives in the face of trauma, mental health and addition issues, and other challenges.
Cindy’s commitment to working with veterans is personal. Her dad was a veteran. He fought in the war in Korea and served two tours in Vietnam. “It’s a way to honor his memory,” she says. And what Cindy would most like for other people and our elected officials to do is to “see them – see them and try to understand what they are going through and look for any opportunity to serve those who once served our nation.”
As the nation’s growing hunger crisis touches those who have protected our nation, Congress has the opportunity right now to protect our active service members from hunger. Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC urges our lawmakers to create a Military Families Basic Needs Allowance and include it in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Basic Needs Allowance would provide a monthly stipend to service members whose income falls below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Through providing extra support for military families to afford enough food, Congress would help ease military families’ anxieties and ensure access to the nutritious foods needed to maintain military readiness.
Second Harvest is already on the frontlines of this moment of crisis to ensure everyone has food on the table. Congress must do its part to ensure we all have enough to eat, including those who have served on the frontlines of other moments of crisis to ensure our nation’s well-being.