Food insecurity among post-9/11 veterans is more than twice the national average, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse

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Former Marine Corps cook Dionisio Cucuta, Jr. has served 2.7 million meals since March 30, 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic, the retired chef and disabled combat veteran partnered with the food rescue organization Table to Table, feeding 3,000 families — including 250-300 veterans — through his Table to Table Tuesdays program each week.

"I want to feed as many veterans as I possibly can," says Cucuta, 62, founder of the Disabled Combat Veteran Youth Program. "It's like feeding my brother. It's personal." 

Food insecurity among post-9/11 veterans is more than twice the national average. It's a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic has made more dire.

"There are far too many veterans out there who struggle with food insecurity, and it doesn't have to be this way," says Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for Mazon — A Jewish Response to Hunger. "For the veterans who've bravely served our country, we owe it to them to make sure that they can at least put food on the table."

Since 2017, the Veterans Health Administration has conducted 10 million screenings of veterans receiving treatment at VA clinics and hospital. They strive to identify food-insecure veterans and then connect them with social workers and dieticians.

"Even one veteran with food insecurity is one too many in our opinion," says Dr. Anne Utech, executive director of VHA-Nutrition and Food Services.

Dionisio Cucuta, Jr.
Dionisio Cucuta, Jr.
| Credit: Courtesy Dionisio Cucuta, Jr.

"Veterans need to be able to access food in their communities in a place that's secure and convenient and from an organization that they trust or are comfortable visiting — and that's where community partnerships are so important," Utech adds.

Leading up to Veterans Day on Thursday, Nov. 11, this week's issue of PEOPLE honors veterans like Cucuta who are making sure fellow vets in their communities don't go hungry.

"I just want to help," Cucuta says. "It's painful when you don't eat."

veterans fighting food insecurity
Rich Synek (left)
| Credit: Feed Our Vets

In 2005, Navy combat veteran Rich Synek was working as a post master in central New York when he met a World War II veteran who bought a single stamp every week, because that's all he could afford.

The WWII vet and his wife often had to choose between heating their home or eating. After learning about his plight, Synek and his wife bought the man groceries and told him to tell his veteran friends that if they needed food, they could come to the post office.

Soon, Synek and his wife Michele were spending close to $2,000 a month feeding local vets. Wanting to do more, they formed a non-profit, Feed Our Vets, in 2009. The couple's organization has since served 33,593 veterans across the country and provided $176,800 in gift cards.

"It's sad seeing my fellow vets struggling," Synek, 55, tells PEOPLE. "It's a battle that I fight against veteran hunger."

For more on hero veterans fighting the hunger crisis, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

veterans fighting food insecurity
Deyonka Hickey
| Credit: courtesy Deyonka Hickey

Deyonka Hickey remembers tears welling up in her eyes outside a veteran's food pantry in Lima, Ohio. In early 2005, she had just left the Air Force and was a single mom with two kids working part time at a bank. When she paid her heating bill, it swallowed most of her pay check — and she needed help buying groceries.

"I just sat in the parking lot crying," says Hickey, 51. "I didn't want to go in there. I didn't want to admit that I needed help, that I couldn't do this on my own. Because when we were in the military, we take care of everybody else."

Paying forward the kindness she received, Hickey launched her own non-profit food pantry, Feed Arkansas Veterans, in March 2018. She served almost 600 vets in Cabot, Arkansas, last year.

"It means a lot to me," Hickey says.

veterans fighting food insecurity
Kiamichi Isham
| Credit: Albany News-Democrat

For the last 10 years, 75-year-old Kiamichi Isham has been growing fresh fruits and vegetables and feeding hungry veterans and the homeless in Lebanon, Oregon.

"I've been blessed to have what I need. And if you can't share, what's the point of having anything?" says Isham, who served five years in the Air Force controlling fighter aircraft.

She has turned her yard into the Veteran's Harbor Garden, with seven boats she has converted into raised vegetable beds. Each boat has a different emblem from a branch of the military.

Isham is thankful "that I don't have to be on the receiving side right now," she says. "We had an abundance this year."