Montrose VA Pantry Supervisor Looks to Help Veterans in Need

By Lindsay Emery

Montrose VA Pantry Supervisor Duke Searles, second from left, with some of his volunteers, wants to help veterans who can use food assistance. The pantry helps former servicemen and their families.

The Montrose VA food pantry’s motto is “We proudly serve those who served our country with pride.”

The pantry’s supervisor, Duke A. Searles, invites all veterans who need assistance to come and collect food from the pantry that is brimming with donations. Searles has been thankful that organizations and vendors such as ShopRite have donated more than 10,000 pounds of food since May.

The pantry was founded in 1995 by VA psychiatrist Regina Tracy, who decided to operate it separately from the hospital. After Searles’ admission to the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction in 1999, he became a driver for the food pantry. Tracy soon asked Searles to take over as supervisor and he has been in charge for the past 21 years.

The pantry started in a broom closet and now spans a large room in Building 13 of the VA hospital. Despite its expanse, the hospital has been forced to scale back food distribution because of its strict COVID-19 guidelines. Before the pandemic, the food pantry would serve between 150 and 200 families a month; now it can only help about 50 each month.

“Now, we’re far from it because of the pandemic and they’re restricting very much the movement of people outside the hospital,” Searles said, “which is causing us to not be able to give food that we’ve received from ShopRite.”

Searles wants to get the word out to all needy veterans and their families across New York that they can come and receive food. They just have to bring a veteran’s photo ID card.

In order to make it more accessible, Searles has placed parking spaces in front of the pantry front doors so those arriving for donations can pull up and receive their food. In addition to the parking spaces, Searles has teamed up with the American Legion to help reach veterans in the area.

“There are hungry families out there and I’d like to get my food to them,” Searles said. “It’s not doing me any good sitting on my shelves.”

During this holiday season, the pantry has partnered with the American Legion post in Valhalla to try and reach additional veterans. The post has been serving area veterans on Monday’s since the start of the holiday season.

“We assist the Montrose VA pantry every year and also on a monthly basis,” said John Creskey, commander of the Valhalla American Legion post. “So every year we run a local food drive, thanks to our community, for the food pantry, but we also send cash every month too so they can buy wholesale. There’s certain food items that they have to buy fresh.” 

Searles said he is grateful that the Montrose VA pantry has grown to be considered a choice pantry, which means that in addition to a normal nutritional bag that everyone receives, people can also opt to choose other items. The nutritional bag contains two fruits, three vegetables and pasta. From the choice pantry, the options range from beans, soup and ravioli, to peanut butter, tuna fish and coffee.   

The pantry is open three days a week. Searles wanted to make the pantry available as often as possible so that it could be accessible. It is closed this week and will reopen after the New Year’s weekend.  

Searles said veterans should never feel shame coming to the pantry. Searles understands what it feels like to be too proud to ask for help. When he returned from Vietnam, Searles didn’t want help either.

“Ego will not feed you,” he said. “It will not fill your stomach. So put your pride and ego in your pocket and come get some food.”

Searles had to decline the Valhalla American Legion annual food drive through the Thornwood ShopRite because there’s too much food at the VA pantry. He also didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of his volunteers who collect the food.

Searles hopes to notify veterans that the food at the pantry is for them and that he wants to give it away. He would be happy if his shelves were a little less full.

“I hope that we can be of some help to people getting the food that is available to them by getting it in their hands and their mouths, on the table, because that’s where it should be,” he said. “Not on my shelves.”

The Montrose VA Food Pantry is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The Valhalla American Legion Post at 27 Legion Drive will also continue to serve veterans on Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon. For contactless pick up, pull into the parking lot and drive the orange corn. Blow your horn and stay in your vehicle.

Jan 5, 2021:
In this article about the pantry at the Montrose VA,  its founder, Regina Tracy, was misidentified as a psychiatrist. Tracy was a social worker. The Examiner regrets the error.

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