Covid epidemic pushes more vets to seek food assistance from Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida

Robert Metzger talks about the amount of food the Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida food pantry distributes every month. Metzger operates the small food pantry for the organization. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – The call was familiar to Charlene Pelland.

An unemployed veteran in Brogan was out of food and out of gas.

Pelland was able to find a driver and sent a gas card out to Brogan for the veteran. Later the man arrived at the Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida vet center in Ontario and picked up a box of food.

Seven months into the Covid pandemic, the number of veterans who are out of work and need help continues to climb, said

Pelland, a member of the Veteran Advocates of Ore-Idaho board.

Veteran Advocates operates its own food pantry in conjunction with the Oregon Food Bank. Before Covid, Pelland said the nonprofit helped about 10 veterans a month with food or gas cards.

“Now we are like 20 or 30,” said Pelland.

Ron Verini, Veteran Advocates of Ore-Idaho chairman and president, said the organization is also seeing more veterans who are “just on the cusp” of hunger now seeking services.

“We’ve been getting more calls for help,” said Verini.

Verini said while the focus of Veteran Advocates is on veterans, the organization does not turn anyone away who seeks food.

“We’ve always had a food pantry and we are helped by local churches, the (Oregon) Food Bank and the Payette Senior Center,” said Verini.

Grocery Outlet in Ontario also donates food, said Pelland.

Verini said Veteran Advocates also helps homeless and in-need veterans with finances.

That lifeline, though, is not as durable as it once was because of Covid, said Verini.

“We are not able to help as much financially because, of course, our donations are down because we haven’t had any fundraising events,” said Verini.

The number of veterans in Malheur County is relatively modest – about 2,500 – but a sudden boost in those seeking services is significant, said Verini.

Verini said his organization’s food pantry is also important because some veterans do not want to go to a local food bank.

“They like to come to us,” said Verini.

To get food, a veteran can call to request food assistance and then a food box is configured. The veteran arrives and then Veteran Advocates staff members mask up and walk to the car and hand over the food box.

“It has proven to be very beneficial for a lot of our veterans,” said Verini.

Food box distribution is limited to one time a month but Verini said if there is a need, Veteran Advocates will allow more than one request within 30 days.

“They can come in more frequently if they have a larger family. Because there are other food distribution sites throughout our area, we don’t supply everything for them because they can pick it up at other food locations and, of course, churches,” said Verini.

Pelland said she believes “if we have it, we give it to them.”

Verini said each food box contains items such as pasta, canned vegetables, breads, rice, beans, oatmeal and milk and then food tailored to the individual.

“Each veteran need is a little bit different,” said Verini. “For our homeless vets, it is mainly canned goods.”

Pelland said along with the jump in veterans in need she also observed more older folks seeking help.

“Like a woman who lives in a mobile home locally. She said, ‘I can hardly make my bills and I don’t have enough money left over for food,’” said Pelland.

With donations down, Pelland said she is focused on pursuing grants to make up the difference.

To find out more or to donate, interested individual can call 541-889-1978.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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