By Darci Niva
Hunger and homelessness are devastating, costly hardships that I’m willing to bet most veterans did not intend to sign up for when they enrolled in the Military. Nevertheless, veterans are now experiencing and at risk of hunger and homelessness in high numbers, especially as they age and require more significant care. A 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that 15% of older veterans in home-based care were malnourished, and that veterans in general may face a greater risk of malnourishment because of the chronic diseases and social risk factors that are prevalent among this population. In Los Angeles County, this risk of hunger is compounded by the enduring homelessness crisis. Despite a sizeable decrease in veteran homelessness overall over the past year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recognized in its 2018 Count that nearly 4,000 veterans in LA County are still experiencing the hardship of life without secure roofs over their heads.
The good news is that social service agencies on the Westside of LA County, with the help of the Westside Coalition, are focusing on programs that consistently provide nourishing food specifically for these veterans. Founded in 1982, the Westside Coalition is an alliance of 47 organizations, public agencies and faith communities committed to working collaboratively on issues of housing, hunger and health through service coordination, public education and advocacy. While there is much work still to be done, the Homeless Count referenced above found that in the West LA area, veteran homelessness decreased by 53% from the prior year, as compared to the citywide decrease of 18%.
This progress is aided greatly by the work of 20 Westside Coalition member agencies that regularly provide food, mental health services that cater to PTSD-induced trauma, street outreach and case management, transitional housing, and medical services for veterans. Last year, over 20,000 unduplicated veterans were served by these agencies.
Westside Food Bank (WSFB) and Meals on Wheels West’s combined hunger relief efforts for veterans is particularly indicative of the work of the Westside Coalition on Hunger Housing and Health, to which both organizations belong. Their Executive Directors both serve on the Board of the Coalition, WSFB’s Bruce Rankin as a founding member. Together, they are able to provide food for veterans who are homebound, homeless, and seeking treatment at VA facilities on the Westside.
For veterans who are homebound, Meals on Wheels West (MOW West) offers its signature free home meal delivery, with a side of social interaction, for veterans who can often find themselves becoming both mentally and physically isolated as they age and heal while at risk of experiencing hunger. As Noe Aguirre, a Sergeant Marine Corps veteran who helps connect other veterans with Meals on Wheels West explains in a promotional video for the organization’s extensive program, “Homebound veterans are still recovering from combat wounds or severe trauma, or TBI [Traumatic Brain Injuries] or PTSD in general…but help is just a phone call away.” By increasing focus on veterans in recent months, MOW West has been able to triple the number of veterans it serves. For 73-year-old Vietnam veteran Purple Heart recipient Bruce Nakashima, those meals and the friendship that he formed with the volunteer and fellow veteran who delivered his food meant the difference between isolation and community, hunger and health. Urging veterans to seek this help, Aguirre says, “You’ve earned that right, it’s not charity.”
At Westside Food Bank, which distributes food for nearly 70 social service agencies on the Westside, providing food for homeless and food insecure veterans who are concurrently seeking treatment or services at VA facilities requires a multi-pronged approach. First, the food must be nutritious and easy to access. This means pop-top cans that do not require can openers, fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw, and diabetes or heart-disease friendly foods that conform to veterans’ often restrictive diets. To get this food to veterans, WSFB operates an extensive raised-bed garden at the West LA VA’s Bandini Foundation Heroes Golf Course; provides food to multiple veteran-centric member agencies; delivers weekly bagged lunches to VA campus buildings, including their Homeless Outreach and Welcome Centers; and perhaps most notably, runs a weekly farmers’ market-style produce distribution right next to the West LA VA’s main hospital pavilion. In 2017, Westside Food Bank’s food reached over 11,000 veterans.
Together, the food provided by Meals on Wheels West and Westside Food Bank reaches veterans who are homebound, experiencing homelessness, or receiving treatment at a VA facility, and who don’t have adequate access to nutritious food. To find out more about the work being done by the Westside Coalition, Meals on Wheels West, and Westside Food Bank, please visit their websites: www.westsideshelter.org, www.mealsonwheelswest.org, www.wsfb.org.
Darci Niva is the Director of the Westside Coalition.