It’s busy inside the Food for Vets office Friday morning as clients wait their turn to go “shopping” inside the food pantry.
Volunteers from St. Sylvester Catholic Church greet families as they arrive inside the Navarre office building. In a backroom more volunteers help clients navigate the shelves stocked with food and household items.
Steve Durfee is a single dad of two young boys and a disabled combat veteran. He worked at Hurlburt Field twice — first as an active duty airman and then as a government contract employee in the late 1990s. He learned about Food for Vets food pantry from the Pensacola VA center.
“It’s just a godsend,” he said. “For years I’ve struggled to make ends meet and this just offloads one of the things.”
Durfee worked in the gunships during the Gulf War and it took a toll on his hearing, he said.
“Every night if you hear the gunships — I used to fly on those. I was maintenance. I was supposed to be on ground troop, but during the war, you do whatever,” he said. “It took its toll on my hearing. I have the hearing loss, but it’s always the ringing…I have this ringing right now that drives you bonkers sometimes.”
“Wars are loud and emotional,” he added. “It’s kill or be killed type of environment and so that causes you to, a person, to go into a different type of…it impacts a person. It may or may not have an effect on you, but it had an effect on me.”
Durfee said there are misconceptions when it comes to veteran assistance. Not everything is covered, which is why he relies on Food for Vets.
“There can be a real façade…I have been blessed in that I have a college education, I’m well educated and yet you still can stumble.”
That’s why Kate Mayor started the Food for Vets pantry in March 2018. She got the idea from a friend who started a similar nonprofit in Arkansas and knew there would be a need in Northwest Florida. As a disabled veteran, Mayor is able to connect and empathize with her clients.
“There are so many gaps. I always heard in basic training that Uncle Sam didn’t issue you your spouse or children so they don’t really pay for them,” she said. “We have one family, an active duty family, he was married previously so 60 percent of his paycheck automatically taken out to ex-wife and children. Both mom and the dad donate plasma to help pay for utility bills and they also use us to pay for food.”
When Mayor first opened the Food for Vets pantry, she had one family. As word got out, her clientele has grown to more than 150 families. Last year, the pantry was able to give away 20,000 pounds of food to military members and their families.
Every month, the pantry opens for clients to come and grab essential grocery items on a first-come-first-served basis.
“[We] average eight new families a month. And they don’t always come back every month and I think that’s a good sign,” she said. “I enjoy that. Sometimes it’s a transition period. Especially with active duty when they’re going from one station to another station and they’re caught in between paychecks or they retire, you also are without a paycheck for about a month or so. And so we’re there for those families.”
Jodie Picciano-Swanson, homeless program manager at the VA in Biloxi, Mississippi, said she does understand the uptick in need, even though veteran homelessness has decreased across the Gulf Coast in the past year.
“We do find that our veterans, even if they’re housed, are still visiting food pantries just because of (the) cost of living and limited income or maybe not having food stamps,” she said.
For veterans who are transitioning out of homelessness, Picciano-Swanson said organizations such as Food for Vets are important resources.
“If they were living in a tent city or the woods for quite some time, their eating habits are probably not the best,” she added. “We find even our vets who are safely housed, they do visit food pantries because they’re getting more of a balanced meal and better food to eat.”
Food for Vets is also open to spouses of veterans — anyone who can provide a military ID. One woman, who declined to give her name, is a spouse of a deceased Air Force veteran. When he passed away, she lost his benefits and has been struggling to make ends meet.
“It has really helped me so much…the people here are just so fantastic and the food is great…it’s wonderful,” she said. “I have been job hunting, and have a hard time trying to find work although I am a young 70-year-old.”
In June the rent for the Food for Vets office is expected to increase, which means Mayor could have to find a new home for the pantry. Mayor worries about her clients, some of whom rely heavily on the Food for Vets pantry.
Carrie (who declined to give her last name) served in the Marines for three years where she fractured her back and knee pulling people to safety after an earthquake. She’s been out of work for the past six months as she waits to have knee surgery. Without Food for Vets, she wouldn’t be able to eat, she said.
“We need more people like Ms. Kate who steps up, she’s our blessing. They say that soldiers that pass in the line of duty or before you are our guardians. She’s our walking guardian.”