Grant helps Allegan County veterans fight hunger. Here’s how to apply

Tom and Sharon Higgins make ends meet as best they can with their monthly Social Security checks. With that as their sole source of income, buying food is challenging.

Fortunately, Tom is an Army veteran. His two-year stint with the military makes him eligible for a $400 gift card through the Allegan County Veteran Services (ACVS), a lifeline he’ll receive every quarter of the year. He also receives a monthly stipend of $23 from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“I’m not really sure what we’d do without the help with food,” says Tom, 75, who lives in Wayland. “On the one hand, it’s good to be retired. On the other, we only live on Social Security.

“There are times I feel desperate.”

But not so much anymore.

Tom and Sharon Higgins rely on food assistance and veterans' benefits to get through the month.

A grant from the Michigan Veterans Affair Agency (MVAA) is enabling the ACVS to provide veterans with the gift cards that can be used to purchase food and some paper supplies at Meijer stores.

Quick help

Deciding how much to spend on food becomes more difficult in the winter when utility bills increase, siphoning off funds otherwise used to feed veterans and their families. Fortunately, once veterans qualify for gift cards, the wait time to receive help is negligible. 

“Some don’t realize we’re able to give them instant relief,” says Jacquelyn King, Allegan County Veteran Services’ officer. “Expenses are higher in the winter. You’ve got your fuel and electric bills that absorb more of people’s budgets. Food is one of the items you can be flexible about when you’re tight on money.”

To be eligible, veterans must have served in active duty; have their military discharge papers known as DD Form 214 (if there’s a challenge getting this form, ACVS can help); have a photo ID; have proof of residency in Allegan County; and show that their income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

An online application is available on the Allegan County website

The grant program was launched during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues thanks to a public-private partnership with Meijer. This is the fifth year the ACVS has received an MVAA grant, which, with one exception, has increased yearly.

In fiscal year 2020, ACVS received $25,000; for fiscal 2021, $59,348; fiscal 2022, $40,110; fiscal 2023, $77,000; and fiscal 2024, $102,900. 

King says that ACVS didn’t use its entire grant in 2021, probably because of the issuing of stimulus checks and the newness of the program, so it requested a smaller amount for 2022. But requests increased, and the grant was amended to total $60,110.

Jen Garcia, Allegan County Veterans Services director, and Jacquelyn King, ACVS officer

Public-private partnership

There was a point where the grant program was in jeopardy of ending, but a public-private partnership between Meijer, ACVS, and MVAA has kept it ongoing.

“Once MVAA started post-pandemic procedures and we were coming back into the real world, we were going to be done with the program and end the assistance. However, Meijer is the one issuing the vouchers (now gift cards) and had been the lead partner as far as a food vendor for our veterans,” says Jen Garcia, ACVS director. “Meijer said they wanted to continue this program for all of our Michigan veterans, so it’s continued under the auspices of Meijer with the funds coming through the MVAA.”

The grant program originally provided veterans with a voucher, but now uses gift cards that are similar to debit cards.

“With the average request between $350 and $400, we were able to distribute over $72,000 in direct relief (last year),” King says. “The program has been an incredible tool to help those who may need some assistance due to unexpected life situations. It also allows Allegan County to actively support our veterans in their time of need, allowing us to show our great appreciation for their service and sacrifice to our nation.”

It’s support that Tom Higgins greatly appreciates.

“I try to buy the more expensive items on sale,” he says. “I try to use it as wisely as we can. But it’s a heck of a lot better than $23 (from the Michigan Health and Human Services).”

Other Lakeshore nonprofits have provided ongoing aid to veterans. One United Way of the Lakeshore nonprofit, Fresh Coast Alliance in Muskegon helps unhoused veterans find a place to live, and the Honor Rewards program offered by the Ottawa County Clerk’s Office provides veterans with discounts on goods and services.
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.