Fighting food insecurity among NJ vets

Dionisio Cucuta

What do you do when the military declares you unemployable because of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions arising from a six-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps? For Dionisio Cucuta, the answer was clear: Start a nonprofit that helps fellow veterans build their skills to succeed in civilian life.

His Englewood-based Disabled Combat Veterans Youth Program started out in 2010 by providing young football players, many of them from diverse and economically challenged communities, with a mentorship program that helped them develop skills for the world of work.

More recently, the nonprofit has focused on the rising food insecurity among veterans and the general public, and now distributes free food to thousands of families in Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties, especially those who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cucuta’s work in serving the hungry in north Jersey has now been recognized by Points of Light, a national nonprofit set up by former President George H.W. Bush, which will present him with an award on Sept. 28. The group promotes the efforts of individuals and organizations that contribute to improvements in issues including hunger, education and water quality.

The recognition will be the latest in a series of awards, including being named a hometown hero during the pandemic by U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th) to commend the work Cucuta is doing for veterans and others. But he said the new commendation means even more to him than all the others.

‘I wasn’t expecting this’

“The tears haven’t been stopping coming out of my eyes,” Cucuta said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “I wasn’t expecting this, I hadn’t been looking for this. I had no idea what Points of Light were. All I wanted to do was just to help people. I’m a born-again Christian; God had me doing his work, and I did his work, and look where I’m at.”

Vets have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic because many are on fixed military pensions or disability payments and are unable to work because of injuries sustained during their service, and so may have a hard time making ends meet, Cucuta said.

That means food assistance has become an important source of help for military and other families who are struggling with low incomes, he said.

With the delta variant of the coronavirus creating a new wave of COVID-19 cases, and the prospect of a new influx of veterans from the Afghanistan withdrawal, Cucuta said he’s expecting demand for food assistance to increase imminently. There are about 400,000 military veterans in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration.

Cucuta himself receives $3,500 a month from the U.S. Veterans Administration as a disability payment after his service as a cook in the Marines from 1977 to 1983. He served in Japan, Lebanon, the Philippines, and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he said he was sickened by drinking contaminated water.

Life after the military

After leaving the military, he worked as an executive chef in several New York and New Jersey restaurants, and then took chef jobs in the corporate sector. But when he was adjudged by the VA to be unemployable because of severe PTSD and other conditions some 15 years ago, he decided to set his nonprofit to help others in need.

“I didn’t want to sit there and vegetate, so I might as well give back,” Cucuta said.

Even though his disability exempts him from income- and property taxes on his Teaneck home, $3,500 a month doesn’t go far in Bergen County, and he knows that other vets have trouble paying their bills, especially if they have large families.

“You are going to need help,” he said. “It hurts me inside because I know what they’re going through. No veteran should have to go through that.”

Cucuta’s all-volunteer group distributes food to pantries and directly to residents after obtaining it from Table to Table, a nonprofit that collects prepared and perishable food that would otherwise be thrown away by major retailers including Walmart and ShopRite.

As demand has risen during the pandemic, Table to Table has increased its food supplies to Cucuta’s group by about sixfold. He now distributes about 33 pallets of food a week to some 3,000 families, around 10% of which are those of military vets, he said.

The partnership complements the food assistance provided by New Jersey’s major food banks and hundreds of pantries run by churches and other community groups to feed food-insecure people, whose numbers have surged during the pandemic.

Expecting demand to rise again

For Cucuta’s group, demand slowed to about 8,000 families in August from about 12,000, he said. But he expects the amount of food distributed to rise again in September to 15% above July’s level because the delta variant is “creeping up,” extra jobless benefits are ending, and kids are going back to school.

He fears another spike in January when a state ban on evictions for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic is due to end. That’s expected to put more pressure on people’s budgets, forcing some to turn to food-assistance groups for help.

For Charmaine Jones, a Navy veteran who lives in Lodi, Bergen County, food packages from Cucuta’s group and other donors are a big help in feeding her two children, ages 11 and 12. “I can use any extra help I can get because food is an expense with growing children,” she said.

Jones, 47, a single parent, picks up two food bags a month from the Great Falls Rotary Foundation Military Assistance Pantry, which she helped to start in 2018. She said the number of vets getting help with food from the pantry has risen to about 80 from about 10 when it opened.

She said vets often have a range of problems that lead them to seek food assistance, including disabilities, PTSD, unemployment, or even homelessness. “They are having a difficult time, so whatever help they can get, they are taking advantage,” she said.

Cucuta, 62, is hoping the publicity from his Points of Light award will help him raise money to buy a farm somewhere in northern or western New Jersey where he can grow organic food, use it to feed the hungry, and teach young people how to grow their own food.

For now, he recognizes his work is helping vets and others who are struggling to put food on the table.

“I can touch these families and these young people and veterans and seniors on a fixed income,” he said. “They have worked all their lives, and they are still struggling. Let’s help them out.”

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