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Many Yuma area veterans now fight battle against hunger
Mike Ivers, the president of the Yuma Community Food Bank, said there has been a major increase in the number of people who have used the food bank over the past year, and surprisingly, many of the recipients are veterans.
“I think that it is a ‘WOW' factor,” Ivers said. “It was very surprising to me that there are so many veterans in need.”
Ivers said that in the year and a half from January 2011 to June 2012, the food bank has given the equivalent of 5,235 meals to veterans and their families. He pointed out, however, that the figure only reflects how often food was given and not who the recipient was, so it likely includes many return visits by many of the same recipients.
So far for the first four months of the 2012 fiscal year, between July 1 and Oct. 31, the food bank has already served 144 military members and their families, with Ivers saying he expects that number to only increase. In the entire 2011 fiscal year, 349 military members and their families were fed.
“So you can tell we are going to surpass that number from last year. I find those numbers staggering and I find it embarrassing,” Ivers said. “There is a huge need out there. The bottom line is there are a lot of veterans out there who are having a hard time putting food on their tables.”
The food bank has been gathering the thoughts of people who come to them in need of food, asking them to share their stories of hunger by writing them on white paper plates. Among those paper plates was one from a combat veteran who served in the Marine Corps and was injured during the Iraq war, which Ivers said touched him deeply.
The paper plate read: “It's very hard for me to ask for help and I will do everything I possibly can to take care of my needs with no help. I lost my job and have two children who are my world. I was struggling to provide even just for myself and basically eating ramen noodles or whatever I could find. It was a constant struggle to provide a decent meal for myself and children. I was starving sometimes and not eating for a few days just so my kids could eat and not go hungry. They helped me provide food for myself and my children and it helped until I found a job and could get back on my feet. Without the Yuma food bank, I wouldn't be able to provide food for myself and my children.”
Ivers said that many veterans are very proud and have a lot of dignity, which is what makes it difficult for them to ask for help. And when they do finally ask, things have already started falling apart in their lives. He added that the stigma that goes with poverty and not being unable to feed your family is hard enough for a person to deal with, but for veterans it seems much worse.
“I would say individuals going into the military are proud of their country and they are proud of who they are as individuals and that they want to help and defend us, so when they come out, it makes it very hard for them to ask for help,” Ivers said. “If they are a veteran, then they shouldn't need these services, but we don't know what is going on in their lives.”
Hunger among veterans, Ivers said, is indicative of what he believes to be a wider issue, which is the country's inability to employ those who have served in the military once they get out. He added that, in general, he doesn't think the country does enough to take care of its veterans and elderly.
“Personally, my own opinion is that if you have served your country, you are entitled to a job,” Ivers said.
Ivers said he uses the paper plates as a way to raise awareness about the problem of hunger and to help change the stigma that is often associated with poverty.
“As human beings we tend to want to judge others. We have to resist that temptation because if we had to go through every life experience they went through, who is to say we would be any different?” Ivers said. “We have to be very careful about doing that.”
The veteran injured in Iraq also touched on this very topic in the writing on his paper plate, admitting that he used to think that the food bank was for people who did not want to work and looking for an free handout.
“But after this experience, and talking with the many people who were there, their stories are very similar to mine,” he wrote. “With the economy and job security now-a-days, this is a resource that Yuma desperately needs.”
Ivers said the food bank has hundreds of these paper plates and displays them to the community wherever he goes as a way to promoting the food bank to people who aren't familiar with what goes on there, or may be interested in helping out.
One of Ivers' most common sayings is that Yuma County is fighting a war on hunger. For the area's veterans, however, it is more than just another battlefield.