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A Bridge to the Community

May 3, 2016

Chris Brown decided to create an organization to help Veterans reintegrate into society through producing local, organic food.  He would help them transfer their national service to their community.  Started with funding through a fellowship from the non-profit The Mission Continues, Growing Veterans has since grown quickly in size and success.  Growing and providing food to the community brought conversation and bonding between Veterans.  It created a sense of purpose and inspired Veterans to be more proactive about their own care.  John Knox, a Marine Veteran and Seattle Manager for Growing Veterans, calls the process “life-affirming,’ and speaks of the work as continuing their service.  Participants began to demonstrate that purpose, service, and community could continue after discharge.

Laura Merritt found Growing Veterans when she did a simple online search.  Merritt is a social worker at a Seattle PTSD clinic, passionate about connecting Veterans with their community.  She learned of farmer’s markets at other VA Medical Centers and their value for community-building.  She recalls thinking, “I want to see if I can do that, bring that here, but I really want to have it Veteran-run, and I wonder if that’s a possibility.”  She realized that if successful, it could provide Veterans a critical bridge to the community.

She called Brown to brainstorm about VA’s first Veteran-run farmer’s market.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the medical center wouldn’t provide enough of a crowd.  Growing Veterans needed sufficient business to justify traveling from the northern part of the state.  They didn’t necessarily need a big crowd, they just needed enough customers.  “That’s when I started to negotiate around this idea of a CSA,” said Merritt, “and there were some complications with that.”

A CSA, an abbreviation for Community-Supported Agriculture, could provide a way to move forward.  In this arrangement, popular among small farms, members join by paying upfront for the season’s produce.  The customers receive weekly baskets of produce and the farmer gets cash to spend on growing the crops.  VA financial rules prohibited the upfront payment.  But with Canteen Services, they found the solution of a weekly “commitment to pay.”  The fifteen members needed to start were quickly found, and the market was officially ready to open.

On the first Thursday, the group arrived and set up their courtyard booth.  The colors of the produce alone brightened the atmosphere; vibrant reds, yellows, greens, and purples.

“Growing Veterans showed up and the first day, they sold out,” recalls Merritt.  It was the first of many successful market days.

Growing Veterans Farmer's Market

“Veterans, employees, their families all together around food, talking about how to use locally grown organic food and different types of vegetables and things that people have never really seen before,” describes Merritt.  Some Veterans can’t afford the listed prices, but no one is turned away, instead paying what they can afford.  Vets across generations gather and tell “stories that history books wish they had in them,” notes Knox.  Veterans come to the market straight from VA appointments, able to start fulfilling their latest dietary instructions.  Growing Veterans is now even coordinating with VA dieticians to learn about specific dietary needs and provide recipe cards.  And Veterans inspired enough to be interested in volunteering are always welcome to join.  As Irwin says, “it’s never too late.”

At the end of the market days, extending the service even further, remaining produce and flowers are brought to the local Fisher House, a foundation that provides housing for visiting families on VA campuses.

But in a strictly scientific view, what does all this accomplish?  The VA Health Services Research and Development (HSRD) Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (CINDRR) studied Growing Veterans and found benefits for Veterans participation to include improvements in physical and mental health, community connectedness, interpersonal connection, and skill development.

Perhaps most poignant in the study were the quotes directly from the participating Veterans:

I’m a part of something larger than myself that’s giving back to community that affords me the space to be connected and plugged into people while continuing to be of service, while continuing to be useful, while continuing to be appreciated for the skills and the attributes that I carried with me from my military service.
I feel like I have a sense of purpose again.  I’m working with other Veterans, I’m helping other Veterans, — I didn’t think it was important to me when I got out but it really is.  Having that sense of responsibility, accountability to others… I think is really important.

Through VA employees coming together to coordinate and problem-solve with an extraordinary group, the farmer’s market has become a popular local fixture, providing value that goes far beyond fresh produce.  Veterans are encouraged by the success of their peers running a business and finding a purpose.  “I think it gives them hope that things have changed for the better,” says Brown.  From the Veterans who find calm in tilling the soil together and sharing the fruits of their labor, to those who visit the market and find inspiring peers, healthy food, and common experiences, there can be no question that this is a partnership that drives VA forward.

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