Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Veteran Leadership Program to hold monthly food distribution in Pittsburgh, Johnstown

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
The Veteran Leadership Program serves upwards of 250 households at its food distribution in the Strip District each month.

The Veterans Leadership Program held its first food distribution of 2023 in the Strip District on Monday. The nonprofit provides fresh produce and protein to veterans and their families.

Drivers wrapped around Mulberry Street while waiting to fill their trunks. Others, including Damian Francis, walked over to pick up their groceries.

Francis served in the military from 1998 to 2004. He said VLP has been like family to him since he relocated to Pittsburgh from Texas, helping him to find shelter and sign up for disability benefits. But as one of the thousands of homeless veterans in the United States, it’s still difficult to make ends meet, he said.

“I get my food stamps, I'm on disability, and it's just not enough to make it through the month,” Francis said.

Francis is one of the more than 8,900 Pennsylvania recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that indicated, as of December 2022, that they are a veteran, according to Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services. But that number represents only those who have voluntarily disclosed this status.

According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 63,000 veterans across Pennsylvania received assistance through SNAP as of 2021. The nonprofit partnered with VLP to provide the food distributed Monday.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Each month, VLP serves upwards of 250 households in Pittsburgh. That’s in addition to their monthly distribution in Johnstown, which typically sees 350 to 400 households, according to Alissa Freese, VLP’s public relations coordinator.

“There's just not as many resources available out there,” Feese said.

Many of VLP’s clients are seniors and on fixed incomes. Nationally, just over 11% of working-age veterans had limited or uncertain access to food between 2015 and 2019, according to a USDA study.

For this group, rising food prices due to inflation have been especially hard to manage.

“Some of the elderly ones, those who can't get out as much, they have to choose between medicine or doctor's appointments and food,” said Joan Baugh, who came by Monday to pick up goods for a couple of homebound veterans.

Baugh said she’s worked with VLP for years, both as a beneficiary and a volunteer. Her husband, a veteran who served in the military during the Korean War, passed away one year ago.

Since then, VLP’s food assistance has alleviated some of the stress that came with losing half her income, she said. Still, she sometimes buys less.

“I shop very carefully,” Baugh said.

In addition to fresh produce and milk, VLP’s “Military Share” offers veterans hygiene and household cleaning products. Residents also can access dry staples from the organization’s pantry, open daily on Smallman Street.

To Francis, VLP is one of the last organizations advocating for a group often left behind.

A lot of people assume that veterans are lost causes, especially those with mental health disorders. Well, all we need is somebody to give us a fighting chance,” Francis said. “We fight for this country. We just need our country to fight for us.”

VLP will hold its next “Military Share” distribution on Monday, Feb. 13 in the Strip District. An additional pick-up event will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 31 in Johnstown.

Updated: January 11, 2023 at 10:40 AM EST
This story has been updated with new data from Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.