When the community works together, great things can happen. That’s exactly what’s happening in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the Ozarks VA. A mutually beneficial partnership with VA, the University of Arkansas Extension and the Fayetteville Public Library united Veterans 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 Linda Coble, Air Force Veteran. “I wasn’t motivated to cook, move or do anything really.”
This project came to life because of VA’s Whole Health, a cutting-edge approach to care that supports Veteran’s health and well-being in a whole person. Whole Health’s approach to Veteran care focuses on what is important to the Veteran, not “What’s the matter with you.”
Basic recipes with variety of themes
The VA cooking classes teach simple, basic recipes with a different focus each month. Mediterranean cooking, grilling, food safety, low carb and diabetic diets are some examples of the different themes.
The Ozark VA Whole Health program provides crockpots, 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 registered for the cooking classes. Classes began in February 2022 as a virtual event due to COVID restrictions.
The delivery of supplies, online classes and support allowed Veterans residing in rural areas across three different states to participate in a first-rate, cooking class from the comfort of their homes.
As COVID restrictions lifted, Veterans transitioned to in-person classes. During the two-hour classes, Veterans learned how to make several budget-friendly, healthy meals.
Veterans enjoy good food and camaraderie
Each Veteran was provided a new recipe book. They worked together in small groups to cook each recipe. And they engaged in taste testing at the end of class. Veterans also discussed lessons learned and enjoyed good food and comraderie with fellow Veterans.
“I am enjoying the people and cooking,” said Coble. “We cooked a chicken recipe today. I think I have all the ingredients at home. Everything but a lemon. After this class, I am going to stop at the store. I’ll pick up a lemon and make this dish in my own kitchen.”
Veterans of all ages can now attend these free, cooking classes in a professional state-of-the-art culinary space at the Fayetteville Public Library. The restaurant-worthy kitchen is complete with prep stations, professional ranges and cooktops, and cleanup stations. Overhead, a full-length hood provides maximum ventilation coverage. The large space allows for easy maneuvering to all the different stations.
Many benefits of healthy diet
The focus of the Ozark VA Whole Health program is to teach Veterans and their caregivers the benefits of healthy living. Studies show a healthy diet can positively and significantly impact issues like chronic stress, diabetes, heart disease, mental health and personal development.
Added benefits include integrating into the community, building confidence in cooking skills and having social interactions with other Veterans with similar interests.
VA dietitians, mental health professionals, peer support specialists and whole health employees have come together to plan menus, shop for items, and support Veterans’ treatment and personal health plans.
Approximately 80 Veterans with chronic illness, enrolled in the Mental Health Intensive Case Management program, the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center and the Whole Health program are benefitting from this opportunity.
“The cooking classes have been a true collaborative effort. They have strengthened relationships within VA as well as with our community partners,” said Allison Wright, a local recovery coordinator. “These classes have demonstrated how whole health and mental health programs can work together in an integrated approach to empower Veterans with knowledge, skills and resources that support their efforts to live a healthy life.”