Food Insecurity among Veterans: Who Is at Risk and How to Respond
November 10, 2021
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) show that working-age veterans have a 7.4 percent greater risk of experiencing food insecurity than non-veterans. Some subpopulations of veterans are at an even higher risk. New solutions are required to address pervasive hunger among veterans, but policymakers must first take a closer look at the disparities revealed by the latest data.
Q1: Which subpopulations of veterans are more likely to experience hunger?
A1: A USDA-ERS report released earlier this year provides greater insight into food insecurity in the veteran community, reinforcing existing data that shows why certain subpopulations may be at greater risk. Some factors specific to military and veteran life contribute to higher food insecurity among certain subpopulations of veterans, including variations by health and disability status, age, gender, and geography.
Health and Disability Status
In the USDA-ERS’s recent study, food insecurity was 22.5 percent higher among disabled working-age veterans than the average for all working-age veterans. This is particularly significant since a higher proportion of veterans are disabled compared to the general U.S. population. Multiple studies have shown that veterans are more likely to have certain health challenges such as depression and psychological disorders than the general population and that veterans with poorer health are more likely to be food insecure. IMPAQ International reported in 2018 that veterans experiencing serious mental illness were 10 times more likely to be food insecure.
Age and Era of Service
Veterans’ age and era of service also play a role in food insecurity, with new and middle-aged veterans more likely to go hungry. An IMPAQ International study found that veterans under 65 years old were more food insecure than those over 65. According to the USDA-ERS, food insecurity is more prevalent among working-age veterans who served in the interwar period of 1975–1990 (12.6 percent) and in the Vietnam War (12.5 percent). Research by Syracuse University also found that participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is three times higher among those who left military service during the prior year than among active-duty personnel, suggesting that the transition out of active-duty service results in higher food insecurity among new veterans.
The USDA-ERS found that female veterans were more likely to be food insecure than male veterans (13.5 percent compared with 10.7 percent of male veterans). This gap was larger than the difference between female and male food insecurity in the civilian population (12.0 percent of female non-veterans and 10.4 percent of male non-veterans are food insecure).
Multiple studies have shown that geography seems to impact prevalence of food insecurity among veterans, with veterans in rural areas and certain urban areas experiencing more hunger. In USDA-ERS’s recent study, food insecurity was higher among veterans living in rural areas (13.9 percent) than those living in metropolitan areas and suburbs (10.6 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively). A 2019 nationwide survey conducted by the Military Family Advisory Network found that food insecurity was highest among respondents from Texas, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed that in Oregon, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., at least 10 percent of veterans live in households receiving food assistance through SNAP.
Q2: How has food insecurity among subgroups of U.S. veterans evolved over time?
A2: The reasons why some veterans experience more food insecurity than other veterans or non-veterans have changed over time with shifting realities and demographics in the military population.
Veterans’ average educational attainment, income, and employment status after service—all of which can impact food security—vary by service era. For instance, military service increased future earnings of World War II and Korean War veterans but had mixed impacts on later cohorts of veterans. The reasons for these differences are complex and there is no single explanation, but evidence suggests that a disconnect between today’s policies that support veterans and the changing demographics among service members may be a factor. The military transitioned to an all-volunteer force in 1973, and since then, the demographic make-up of service members has changed substantially, with a much higher representation of people of color, women, service members with families, and older active-duty forces today than in the past. The advocacy group MAZON points out that military compensation policy has not kept up with the increasing number of service members who support families or with rising costs of living. As a result, policies that were designed for previous generations often do not adequately meet the needs of later cohorts.
There is also substantial evidence showing that military service increases the likelihood of poor health and disability, which can increase medical expenses, financial hardship, and food insecurity. While this is true for all veterans, it is particularly prevalent among certain groups and has increased in recent years. Recent medical and equipment advances mean that more veterans survive more wounds today than in previous generations. Post-9/11 veterans and those who experienced combat are more likely to have a service-related disability than other veterans. Women are also more likely to have a work-limiting disability than other veterans, which may be a factor in why female veterans have higher rates of food insecurity.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that the veteran population will continue to become more diverse over the next few decades, suggesting that food insecurity among some subgroups of veterans will continue to grow unless policies are revised.
Q3: What public resources exist to support veterans experiencing hunger?
A3: A range of government programs aim to support veterans facing food insecurity. On the federal level, these include national food and nutrition assistance programs that are not specific to veterans but which some veterans may qualify for, such as SNAP, which provides food assistance for low-income U.S. families; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which targets mothers and young children; and the Older Americans Act, which designates funding to support nutrition services for older adults. Other federal benefits are available to veterans who are disabled, homeless, or unemployed, including housing assistance and unemployment compensation. Benefits for service-connected disabilities also do not count as earned income for the purposes of SNAP eligibility.
Some other programs that are specifically designed to reach veterans include the Veterans Pantry Pilot program, a partnership between Feeding America and VA medical centers, and resources provided through Veterans Service Organizations such as assistance with benefits claims and emergency food assistance.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has made efforts in recent years to focus on food insecurity, including by identifying at-risk veterans, training VHA staff, and connecting veterans with resources available to them. The VA integrated a food insecurity screening tool into its electronic health record system in 2017 that refers food-insecure veterans to a social worker or dietitian for further care and assistance. This tool was updated in 2021 and has been fairly effective at screening veterans who access care at VA clinics.
Q4: How effectively do the existing programs address food insecurity among veterans?
A4: Even though a plethora of federal programs exist, many of them are underutilized or do not reach veterans who are most in need of assistance. A 2018 study found that only 30.3 percent of food-insecure veterans and 41.3 percent of low-income veterans lived in households receiving SNAP, compared to 82 percent of all SNAP-eligible households receiving benefits. There are many reasons why veterans eligible for SNAP may not participate in the program, including stigma and difficulties that new veterans face in finding and accessing resources.
The VA’s food insecurity screening tool and other VA interventions reach only veterans who utilize VA services. The VA reported in 2016 that 62 percent of veterans had used VA healthcare between 2001 and 2015, meaning that almost 40 percent of veterans are not reached by these interventions.
Low utilization rates present major limitations for the effectiveness of these programs to alleviate veteran hunger. Additionally, some groups of veterans who are at higher risk of food insecurity, such as those with mental illness, may not qualify for or know about these benefits.
Some smaller-scale initiatives have been implemented to reach veterans outside of federal programs and the VA. For example, the Reaching Rural Veterans pilot by the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University screened people at food pantries in the Midwest to identify veterans and help connect them with resources and support. Preliminary results from this pilot show promising improvements in food security and resource use for participating veterans, but similar interventions would need to be expanded nationally to reach all veterans struggling with hunger.
Q5: How can policymakers better support veterans who are at higher risk of food insecurity?
A5: The veteran population is not a monolith and has expanded and changed significantly over time, but the resources to support it have not kept up. New factors—an increased proportion of young veterans with work-limiting disabilities, changing family and employment realities, and difficulties accessing public benefits programs—help explain why some veterans face higher rates of food insecurity than others. Programs that were designed for previous generations of veterans are no longer sufficient to reach some of the groups who are at high risk of hunger, leaving many veterans to fall through the cracks.
Policymakers should consider the unique challenges that certain groups face in order to ensure that no one in the veteran community goes hungry. Although there are some programs in place to help a wide range of veterans, targeted interventions will also be needed to better support groups that are more food insecure. Some such pilot programs have demonstrated success. Reaching Rural Veterans, for example, conducted screening and outreach outside of the VA healthcare system to reach those who do not utilize VA healthcare and connect them with available resources. Similarly, targeted outreach on behalf of the VA and USDA could greatly improve uptake of resources already available, such as VA healthcare and nutrition assistance through the USDA. More support for veterans with disabilities could also be developed to reach this particularly vulnerable population. Finally, policymakers could target female veterans and younger cohorts of veterans who are not typically the focus of these interventions. Proactively providing information and resources to new veterans as they transition out of military service could also help expand utilization of these programs. Using the latest data, policymakers can design better-targeted solutions that reflect today’s diverse veteran population to more effectively reach those at the highest risk of food insecurity.
Jamie Lutz is a research associate with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Caitlin Welsh is the director of the CSIS Global Food Security Program.
This piece is made possible by support from the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
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