PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Up to 24% of U.S. military veterans are estimated to be affected by food insecurity — a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate food — and a new study found that risks are significantly higher for people of color and women.
It also found that veterans with medical and trauma-related conditions as well as unmet social needs like housing instability are more likely to experience food insecurity.
For the study, researchers at Brown University and the Providence V.A. Medical Center analyzed data with a focus on revealing the characteristics of veterans at the highest risk of food insecurity. If researchers know what populations to target, tailored interventions can be developed to address their needs and mitigate the long-term impacts of food insecurity on health and well-being.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for addressing veteran food insecurity,” said corresponding author Dr. Alicia Cohen, a Brown assistant professor (research) of family medicine and of health services, policy and practice. “So findings from studies like this can be used in many ways, from helping to identify the most at-risk groups to helping address veterans’ immediate food need to connecting veterans with programs and resources that can hopefully help improve their food security over the long term.”
Cohen said that many veterans face economic and employment challenges following military service, stemming both from service-related mental and physical health issues as well difficulty reintegrating into civilian life —factors that can increase the risk of food insecurity.
Yet food insecurity is often missed in clinical settings, said Cohen, who is also a primary care provider in the women’s health clinic and homeless clinic at the Providence V.A. Medical Center. “You can’t tell by looking at a patient if they're struggling to put food on the table,” she said.
And like civilian patients, veterans often will not initiate a conversation with their health care provider about their food needs.
“If we don’t specifically ask veterans about their food needs, we are going to be missing people who are experiencing hardship,” Cohen said. “There are a number of resources within the V.A. and in the community to help address food insecurity, but we can’t offer these resources if we don’t know that a veteran is in need.”
That’s one of the reasons the Veterans Health Administration developed a systematic screening system in 2017 in which staff are prompted to ask veterans seeking health care specifically about food insecurity. This new study is the first to examine findings based on those screening questions. The researchers analyzed data from the screenings to identify demographic and medical characteristics associated with a positive food insecurity screen.