Grocery voucher program offers much-needed help for Kent County's veterans

It's been almost five months since COVID-19 hit West Michigan hard, forcing quarantines and for most, staying at home for the foreseeable future. Amid shutdowns, many nonprofits and government services were forced to shift their programming as in-person interactions became dangerous and nearly impossible. This major upheaval has highlighted many disparities in at-risk communities throughout West Michigan, and veterans, who often rely on earned government services, are no exception. A new grocery voucher program assists veterans with much-needed funds to feed their families amid COVID-19.

Martha Burkett, Manager of Veterans Services at Kent County, oversees a staff of nine clerks, veterans services officers, and administrators, all working to support veterans in the county with vital programming. In addition to accessing traditional Veterans Affairs Services like dental and healthcare, Burkett also administers bus passes and helps veterans with cash payments to prevent utility shut-offs or pay security deposits on rental units. Burkett describes her department's support as "Anything that's unanticipated," including emergency needs that may arise, including feeding their families.

Burkett notes that her department is funded by a county millage and was also awarded $220,000 in grant money from the state-run Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency for 2020. "[And] then COVID-19 happened," she says, wiping out a full calendar of in-person events and initiatives. However, says Burkett, this cancellation of programming was actually a boon for her department, who decided to shift their programming funds toward food insecurity.

Moving quickly, Veterans Services made the decision to reallocate $11K in funding toward the existing MVAA food voucher program in June. The MVAA-run initiative had already built the infrastructure and process necessary to provide Meijer gift cards in $50 and $100 increments to Michigan veterans. Joining their funds and manpower with the statewide program, Burkett and her team began offering these vouchers in Kent County.

What Burkett likes most about the program is the ease and simplicity in applying and receiving the vouchers. "The criteria that they have to meet and the documentation they have to do is really streamlined so that it's not an arduous process," she says. With a short phone conversation with VSO Supervisor Ryan Grams, local veterans who prove they have an emergent issue in obtaining food are asked to provide just their DD 214 military discharge form and a valid ID with their current address. If a local veteran has already worked with Kent County Veterans Services in the past, the office likely already have that individual's DD 214 on file.

With the ID and DD 214 in hand, Grams then sends the vouchers via mail in just a few days.

Single veterans receive $150. If they have a spouse, they can receive $200, and with children, the amount goes up to $250 depending on the number of children. Each veteran can receive the vouchers once every 30 days until they reach the maximum of $500.

"It's a low-risk process," says Grams, who conducts all of the phone calls himself from a still no-contact office and approves all documentation via email or text. For those that have already participated in the program, Grams says, "Well they love it because it's easy." And for Grams, he's happy that the program offers assistance during unprecedented times.

"We're still able to serve the public even though we're not meeting the public face-to-face," he says.

The Meijer Voucher program was originally funded by the MVAA through September 2020, but Kent County Veterans Services made the decision to supplement the program with their own local funds for the duration of 2020.

"The beauty of that is that there's a Meijer everywhere, and they can use it anywhere in the state," says Burkett. "They can use it for food, they can use it for pet food, they can use it for hygiene products, and they can use it for household products." Veterans cannot use the vouchers for the purchase of alcohol or tobacco.

"We want to be able to help those people in a timely manner," says Burkett, who is also working on improved processes for housing assistance for veterans. Recently, her team was able to increase the amount offered to veterans for rent, utility shut-off, etc. to $8000K without seeking special approval. Previously, the threshold was $1500.

"There are people that are experiencing hardship all the time," adds Burkett. And with the Meijer Voucher program, Burkett and her team hope to decrease that hardship for veterans in Kent County.

Veterans interested in obtaining the grocery vouchers can call 616-632-5722.
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