Effie Craven serves as the State Advocacy and Public Policy Director for the Oklahoma Food Banks — the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma — where she advocates for programs and policies that promote access to nutritious foods and economic security for all Oklahomans.

One in six Oklahomans struggles with hunger, 25 percent of Oklahoma children are at risk of going to bed hungry at night, and 16 percent of our population live at or below the federal poverty line. These staggering figures highlight the critical problem of hunger in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, our military service members and veterans are not immune.

With more than 300,000 veterans in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Food Banks are deeply concerned that tens of thousands of our state’s former service members may be struggling with hunger. According to a study published in 2015, more than one in four Iraq and Afghanistan veterans nationwide reported being food insecure in the past year. A separate 2015 study found that 24 percent of veterans who have accessed care through the Veterans Health Administration (VA) reported being food insecure. Feeding America’s Hunger in America report included data on veteran and military status among food pantry clients across the nation for the first time in 2014. The study found that than 1 in 5 households served by the Feeding America food bank network reported having at least one member who has served in the U.S. military.

Data for food insecurity among active-duty service members is scarce, as the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not coordinate data on service members’ use of federal food assistance programs. However, according to the Defense Commissary Agency, over $21 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were utilized at commissaries from September 2014 through August 2015.

For these reasons, the Oklahoma Food Banks are increasing programming, outreach, and advocacy to ensure that our nation’s heroes don’t go hungry. During the 2016 state legislative session, we advocated for a bipartisan bill to help protect the assets of low-income homeowners who have served in the military. We have established partnerships with the VA and other agencies who serve veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and we are working to serve food-insecure military members and veterans across the state.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma operates a Mobile Eatery that serves hot meals to veterans in the Tulsa area weekly. Through a partnership with the Coffee Bunker, an organization dedicated to helping veterans and service members reintegrate and transition back to civilian life, veterans experiencing food insecurity are connected with critical resources, food assistance, and camaraderie with other former service members. Read the stories of one of the veterans who participated in this collaborative partnership here. The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma also engages veterans and the community groups who serve them through their Veteran’s Outreach Initiative, managed by a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. This initiative seeks to create collaborative networks to address the complex issues that contribute to food insecurity, including poverty, homelessness, and mental illness.

However, in order to maximize our impact and end military and veteran hunger, the charitable food assistance network cannot do it alone. We must also ask our leaders in state and federal government to prioritize data collection, track military and veteran participation in federal safety net programs, exclude service-related benefits from countable income in SNAP determination, and include food insecurity screenings as part of routine health care screenings.

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