BENTON COUNTY, Iowa — Every year, thousands of Iowa veterans request food assistance from their county veterans affairs offices, but each county handles those requests a bit differently.
Each month, a few veterans walk into Toni Parizek’s office, asking for help with groceries. She’s the director of the veterans affairs office in Benton County.
“I kind of ask, kind of an estimate of how much they think they’ll need for the rest of the month to get them and their family through,” Parizek explained.
She then fills out a voucher for that amount, and the recipient takes it to Fareway in Vinton. There, the voucher holder can buy whatever he or she needs up to that amount, under certain criteria.
“They go around and buy whatever they want,” said Fareway store manager Dave Kelchen. “No cigarettes, no beer.”
Those off-limits items are fairly common across other VA offices. Johnson County’s won’t allow expensive cuts of meat, like steak.
At month’s end, Fareway totals up the vouchers, and sends Benton County a bill.
But in Linn County, VA director Donald Tyne says they don’t grocery vouchers. He says at one time, his office had a voucher program with Hy-Vee, but it was discontinued after his office received complaints that some recipients were buying things like tobacco and alcohol. Instead, his office provides food assistance through an in-house food bank.
“A lot of veterans initially come in because they’re underemployed or unemployed, and they’re hungry,” Tyne said. “And we use this food bank as a means of drawing them in.”
The bank is small, just one room. It has a freezer and fridge for perishable food, and Tyne said it’s stocked through fundraising events and donors.
“When we had 2,800 veterans use this food pantry last year, we really depend on donations,” Tyne told us. Even with the food bank here, he said sometimes it’s still tough for vets to ask for help.
As a veteran herself, that’s something Parizek can relate to.
“When you’re in the military, you’re used to being able to do things for yourself, and help yourself,” Parizek said. “And unfortunately, that’s not the case a lot of times when people get out, and they do need help.”
Johnson County’s VA Office said it serves about 7,500 veterans. For them to qualify for food assistance, they must be under 100% of the national poverty line.