When the community works together, great things can happen. This is exactly what is happening in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in Ozarks VA. A mutually beneficial partnership with VA, the University of Arkansas Extension and the Fayetteville Public Library brought veterans together to participate in Whole Health cooking classes in June.
“Before this class, I didn’t want to leave my house or talk to people,” said Air Force veteran Linda Coble. “I wasn’t motivated to cook or move or do anything really.”
This project was made possible through VA’s Whole Health, a cutting-edge approach to care that supports the health and well-being of veterans as a whole. Whole Health’s approach to veteran care focuses on what’s important to the veteran, not “what’s wrong with you.”
Basic recipes with a variety of themes
VA cooking classes teach simple, basic recipes with a different focus each month. Mediterranean cuisine, grilling, food safety, low carbohydrate diets and for diabetics are some examples of the different themes.
The Ozark VA Whole Health program provides slow cookers, blenders, steamers, and fresh, healthy ingredients for three to five recipes at no cost to veterans each month. The kitchen items for each meal are delivered to each veteran who has registered for the cooking classes. Classes started in February 2022 as a virtual event due to COVID restrictions.
The delivery of supplies, online classes and support enabled veterans residing in rural areas in three different states to participate in a top-notch cooking class from the comfort of their homes.
As COVID restrictions were lifted, veterans transitioned to in-person classes. During the two-hour classes, the veterans learned how to prepare several healthy and economical meals.
Veterans appreciate good food and camaraderie
Each veteran received a new cookbook. They worked together in small groups to cook each recipe. And they indulged in taste tests at the end of the course. Veterans also discussed lessons learned and enjoyed great food and camaraderie with other veterans.
“I appreciate people and I cook,” Coble said. “We cooked a chicken recipe today. I think I have all the ingredients at home. Anything but a lemon. After this course, I will stop at the store. I will take a lemon and prepare this dish in my own kitchen.
Veterans of all ages can now attend these free cooking classes in a state-of-the-art professional culinary space at the Fayetteville Public Library. The restaurant-worthy kitchen is complete with prep stations, professional ranges and cooktops, and cleaning stations. Overhead, a full-length hood provides maximum ventilation coverage. The large space makes it easy to maneuver to all the different stations.
Many benefits of a healthy diet
The goal of the Ozark VA Whole Health program is to teach veterans and their caregivers the benefits of healthy living. Studies show that healthy eating can have a positive and significant impact on issues such as chronic stress, diabetes, heart disease, mental health and personal development.
Additional benefits include community integration, confidence building in cooking skills, and social interaction with other veterans with similar interests.
VA dietitians, mental health professionals, peer support specialists and global health staff came together to plan menus, purchase items and support veterans’ treatment and personal health plans.
Approximately 80 veterans with chronic illnesses enrolled in the Intensive Mental Health Case Management Program, Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, and Comprehensive Health Program are taking advantage of this opportunity.
“The cooking classes were a truly collaborative effort. They have strengthened relationships within VA as well as with our community partners,” said Allison Wright, Local Recovery Coordinator. “These courses demonstrated how comprehensive health and mental health programs can work together in an integrated approach to equip veterans with knowledge, skills and resources that support their efforts to lead healthy lives.