May 25, 2020

The GardenWorks Project fights hunger with Hines Veterans Hospital

Food growing for veterans

everyone deserves fresh produce

Food growing for veterans

According to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, 20% of the 40 million people served by its 200 food banks and their networks are veterans.

But according to a Cambridge University study, 25% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with hunger

Several months ago, Tiffany Cunnally, a case manager at Edward Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital, reached out to GardenWorks about their on-site Freedom's Path housing program. She wanted to create additional programs to encourage recreation and healthy eating. As a Food Growers Network member and veteran herself, Tiffany found value in gardening and growing food for her family. 

“The veterans we serve at Freedom’s Path are recovering from homelessness,” Tiffany told us. “So to go from that to having a home and a green space to grow their own food goes beyond meeting their basic needs.”

“After serving in the military, veterans often face physical, mental, and social issues that make them a vulnerable population in regards to food insecurity,” said Emily Kehoe, board chair for GardenWorks and development officer for Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, a regional leader in providing transitional housing, homeless prevention, affordable housing and personalized services to veterans and their families. 

She says that organizations such as the Gardenworks Projects have found that the veterans they serve are often taught to help others vs. themselves. This results in them enduring their personal struggles in silence.

At Gardenworks, we noticed that veterans were highly underrepresented in our applicant pool for the Home Gardening Program. We have made it a priority of ours to do more outreach in the veteran community: we have partnered with the VA clinic in Aurora, Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans and the Cantigny Veterans Garden to build gardens and host educational workshops. Working with Hines VA, then, was a no-brainer.

“As GardenWorks continues to grow and evolve, our experience and model uniquely position us to connect with some of the hardest-to-reach individuals struggling with food insecurity, especially veterans,” said Jeannie Iseman, executive director of GardenWorks. 

With Tiffany’s guidance, we signed three veteran families up for the Home Gardening Program, and on Friday, May 15, at Freedom’s Path, we kicked off our 2020 build season, installing three new raised bed gardens and refreshing two other spaces to grow food for the hospital campus.

As part of the Home Gardening Program, Freedom’s Path families will receive guidance and supplies to ensure productive, successful gardens for three seasons, including seeds, seedlings, tools, a GardenWorks Vegetable Guide, and one-on-one coaching. They will receive weekly emails from GardenWorks with how-tos, video tutorials, garden updates, seed starting tips, recipe suggestions and more. When necessary, GardenWorks staff will check in to refresh garden spaces, deliver new supplies and provide any support families need.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to give back to those who have given so much,” Jeannie said. “We hope these gardens can serve not only as a space of respite and recreation, but also provide an essential source of nutrition for those who may need it."

For the veterans, the program is an opportunity to build community and to empower themselves with a skill that promotes healthy living and emotional and mental wellbeing. 

“This garden will serve as a tool to help me manage my PTSD symptoms,” said Teresa*, an Air Force veteran who will begin her food growing journey with GardenWorks this year. “This garden is also valuable as it will help to feed my family the fresh vegetables that we need to maintain healthy minds and bodies. Thank you for providing us this opportunity to better not only ourselves but also our community.”

On this Memorial Day, as you spend time in your own gardens, transplanting seedlings or maybe prepping beds for the fall, take a moment to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that our veterans have made and those left behind to tell their stories. 

*name changed for privacy.