Ozark Community Partners Help Veterans Heal Through Cooking Classes

When the community works together, great things can happen. That is exactly what is happening in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the Ozarks VA. A mutually beneficial partnership with the VA, the University of Arkansas Extension and the Fayetteville Public Library brought Veterans together to participate in Whole Health cooking classes in June.

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Air Force Veteran Linda Coble

“Before this class, I didn’t want to leave my house or talk to people,” said Linda Coble, an Air Force veteran. “I wasn’t motivated to cook or move or do anything really.”

This project was brought to life by VA Whole Health, a cutting-edge approach to care that supports the health and wellness of veterans in a whole person. Whole Health’s approach to veterans care focuses on what’s important to veterans, 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 and diabetic diets are some examples of the different topics.

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. Kitchen items for each meal are given to each Veteran who has signed up 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 in three different states to participate in a world-class cooking class from the comfort of their homes.

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As COVID restrictions lifted, veterans transitioned to in-person classes. During the two-hour classes, the veterans learned how to prepare various healthy and affordable meals.

Veterans enjoy good food and camaraderie

Each Veteran received a new recipe book. They worked together in small groups to cook each recipe. And they engaged in a taste test at the end of the class. Veterans also discussed lessons learned and enjoyed great food and fellowship with other veterans.

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The team makes zucchini noodles during a healthy cooking class

“I enjoy the people and the cuisine,” Coble said. “We cooked a chicken recipe today. I think I have all the ingredients at home. Everything except a lemon. After this class, I’m going to stop at the store. I will take a lemon and make 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 stoves and stoves, and cleanup stations. Up top, a full-length hood provides maximum ventilation coverage. The large space allows easy maneuvering to all the different stations.

Many benefits of a 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 that a healthy diet can have a positive and significant impact on issues like chronic stress, diabetes, heart disease, mental health, and personal development.

Additional benefits include joining the community, building confidence in culinary skills, and having social interactions with other veterans with similar interests.

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VA dietitians, mental health professionals, peer support specialists and integrative health employees have come together to plan menus, shop for items and support veterans’ treatment and personal health plans.

Approximately 80 Veterans with chronic illnesses, enrolled in the Mental Health Intensive Case Management program, the Center for Recovery and Psychosocial Rehabilitation, and the Comprehensive Health program are benefiting from this opportunity.

“The cooking classes have been a true collaborative effort. They have strengthened relationships within the VA as well as with our community partners,” said Allison Wright, local recovery coordinator. “These classes have demonstrated how comprehensive health and mental health programs can work together in an integrated approach to empower veterans with the knowledge, skills and resources that support their efforts to live healthy lives.”