Hero Veterans Are Stepping Up to Feed Fellow Vets Suffering from Food Insecurity: ‘It’s Personal’ (People)

Wendy Grossman Kantor
November 5, 2021

This article first appeared in People on November 5, 2021.

Former Marine Corps cook Dionisio Cucuta, Jr. has served 2.7 million meals since March 30, 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic, the retired chef and disabled combat veteran partnered with the food rescue organization Table to Table, feeding 3,000 families — including 250-300 veterans — through his Table to Table Tuesdays program each week.

“I want to feed as many veterans as I possibly can,” says Cucuta, 62, founder of the Disabled Combat Veteran Youth Program. “It’s like feeding my brother. It’s personal.”

Food insecurity among post-9/11 veterans is more than twice the national average. It’s a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic has made more dire.

“There are far too many veterans out there who struggle with food insecurity, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” says Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “For the veterans who’ve bravely served our country, we owe it to them to make sure that they can at least put food on the table.”

Since 2017, the Veterans Health Administration has conducted 10 million screenings of veterans receiving treatment at VA clinics and hospital. They strive to identify food-insecure veterans and then connect them with social workers and dieticians.

“Even one veteran with food insecurity is one too many in our opinion,” says Dr. Anne Utech, executive director of VHA-Nutrition and Food Services.

“Veterans need to be able to access food in their communities in a place that’s secure and convenient and from an organization that they trust or are comfortable visiting — and that’s where community partnerships are so important,” Utech adds.

Leading up to Veterans Day on Thursday, Nov. 11, this week’s issue of PEOPLE honors veterans like Cucuta who are making sure fellow vets in their communities don’t go hungry.

“I just want to help,” Cucuta says. “It’s painful when you don’t eat.”

In 2005, Navy combat veteran Rich Synek was working as a post master in central New York when he met a World War II veteran who bought a single stamp every week, because that’s all he could afford.

The WWII vet and his wife often had to choose between heating their home or eating. After learning about his plight, Synek and his wife bought the man groceries and told him to tell his veteran friends that if they needed food, they could come to the post office.

Soon, Synek and his wife Michele were spending close to $2,000 a month feeding local vets. Wanting to do more, they formed a non-profit, Feed Our Vets, in 2009. The couple’s organization has since served 33,593 veterans across the country and provided $176,800 in gift cards.

“It’s sad seeing my fellow vets struggling,” Synek, 55, tells PEOPLE. “It’s a battle that I fight against veteran hunger.”