Local food initiatives assist area veterans

ABUZZ: Beekeeping is one of the many offerings at the Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville. Photo courtesy of VHF

When Megan Landreth first stepped foot on the Veterans Healing Farm in January, she knew she was where she was meant to be.

A U.S. Air Force service member from 2002-11, Landreth went from active duty to caregiver for her husband, Shane Landreth, a fellow member of the armed service branch, until his death in 2019. As such, she says she’s had to “fight her own demons.” But since being hired as VHF’s farm administrator at the start of the year, she’s able to help fellow veterans heal in an environment that encourages wellness.

“There’s something about this place that is just calming,” Landreth says. “You come out here, and there’s peace and you can hear the water.”

That sense of welcoming has been at the heart of the VHF since founders Nicole and John Mahshie launched the nonprofit in 2013 on their family’s land in rural Hendersonville. A fellow Air Force veteran, John excelled as a ground equipment mechanic and rose to the rank of senior airman E-4 as a member of the Honor Guard. But after leaving the military, the lack of structure left him feeling isolated.

One of the most beneficial avenues that helped Mahshie heal was working in the ground, which prompted him to research agritherapy and how it could be used to aid other veterans as well as allies. By being outside and working with the land alongside people who understand what veterans have been through, the VHF community experiences the therapeutic benefits of eating organic vegetables, absorbing vitamin D from being in the sun, partaking in physical exercise and being enveloped by the beauty of nature.

“We consider our community the veterans, families, caregivers and volunteers that have a passion for veterans,” Landreth says. “You might not have any affiliation with the military or a veteran, but if a passion for you is to help veterans, you can come out here and help us to work on the farm just like everybody else.”

Veterans are often referred to the farm through the VHF’s connections at the Charles George VA Medical Center, particularly through mental health professionals. Dr. Laura Tugman, chief of Mental Health Services for the WNC VA Health Care System, sees such complementary services as extremely valuable in helping area veterans and augmenting her system’s variety of offerings.

“Mental health services and suicide prevention are a clinical priority for VA, and at the Asheville VA we strive to create a recovery community where veterans are supported in rebuilding a life of hope, meaning and purpose,” Tugman says.

But the VHF is also working to connect with as many area organizations that serve veterans, recently hosting a resource fair in May for nearly 30 such groups. Furthermore, the VHF community makes a point of not asking veterans anything about their service and takes all interested parties at their word.

“Our biggest thing is that we want people to feel comfortable, and if we’re asking you, ‘Where’d you serve? When did you serve? What did you do?,’ that becomes very standoffish,” Landreth says. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about that — and that’s why we’re here. You can talk about if you want, or you don’t have to. If you are more content to come out here and not speak to a single soul, we’re good with that. This farm is for everybody.”

Volunteer opportunities are available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. The VHF also puts out calls for help on harvest days, including a recent one when the year’s lettuce, kale, broccoli and collards crops were picked. The vegetables were then taken to Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Safelight and other area shelters.

In an effort to produce further into the year, the VHF planted over 2,000 sweet potatoes in its flag garden. Landreth also reports that the farm’s greenhouse tomatoes are getting tall and that the property’s various berry bushes are producing well.

But the farm’s offerings extend far beyond agritherapy. Classes on beekeeping, art, self-defense, fermentation, canning and more are slated for this summer, with more on the way in fall. The goal is to provide the VHF community with an array of outlets for healing and/or skill development, and the staff plans to resume three- to four-day overnight workshops that have been put on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Landreth feels that anyone who gets involved with the farm ends up having a success story, she says the standout example is Mahshie himself. In late 2021, he and Nicole transitioned out of their leadership roles with the farm to travel and spend more time with their children, paving the way for Alan Yeck to step in as executive director in November. For those who’ve seen all the hard work that John put into the VHF, its benefits for him are especially evident.

“Even as the founder, he kind of burned the candle at both ends with running this and trying to deal with his own mental health. And now he’s out here, and all he does is the farming aspect of it,” Landreth says. “He smiles and he’s happy. Just watching him be able to relax finally — that’s the whole reason why we have this.”

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Vet chefs

In addition to using produce donated by the Veterans Healing Farm, MANNA FoodBank and other organizations to help feed the homeless, Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry has steadily ramped up its services for veterans since 1985.

The formation of A Vet’s Place in 2002 was followed by a partnership with the Charles George VA in 2003 to intentionally start transitional housing for veterans with employment and training services that led to living wage jobs and permanent homes. During this time, ABCCM provided three meals a day, including bag lunches for individuals who were working. But a significant shift occurred on the food service front in 2008 when A Vet’s Place moved into the Veterans Restoration Quarters at 1329 Tunnel Road, and cooking courses became a possibility.

“Since we had to install a commercial kitchen, we asked A-B Tech to help design a commercial/teaching kitchen that could serve 1,000 meals a day,” says Scott Rogers, ABCCM executive director. “When it opened in May 2008, this new kitchen provided the first opportunity to offer culinary training classes to our veterans.”

Courses began that fall under the tutelage of chef and A-B Tech instructor Eric Cox, who developed a culinary basic skills class and an advanced culinary skills class that taught men and women skills to be employed in high-end kitchens and be prepared as sous-chefs. Cox offered three semesters a year in culinary training from 2008-19. Classes ranged from eight-12 students, composed of both the veterans on ABCCM campuses and the general public.

“ABCCM has a person-centered approach, which means that the veterans were choosing this career rather than just being recruited,” Rogers says. “Unfortunately, COVID suspended these classes due to the nature of their close working environment in March 2020 and have not reopened at this time.”

Rogers adds that ABCCM is in the middle of its strategic planning for 2023 and that the decision on plans for the classes next year will not be determined until sometime between September and November. But he hopes that the organization can resume training residents in the culinary arts and once more contribute to the vibrant culinary community.

EXCELLENT SERVICE: Chef Eric Cox, left, provides guidance to ABCCM culinary graduates in 2019 as they prepare and serve a meal to complete the course. Photo courtesy of ABCCM

Each culinary class was required to develop a menu with four or five courses, with each student being trained in the serving and presentation of those courses. The veterans prepared the first gourmet meal for ABCCM staff, and Rogers recalls he and his colleagues being “so amazed at the five-star quality, that it raised the question of who [else] we could share their transformative success with.”

One student suggested that they thank ABCCM volunteers and donors through these meals, and thus began a series of monthly meals — later known as Tables of Faith — that gave them real-world experience and helped raise thousands of dollars to build Transformation Village, which provides transitional housing for homeless women, mothers with children and veterans.

With such exemplary results, it’s no wonder that, prior to the pandemic disruption, placement rates for program graduates in area kitchens were consistently 100%. Rogers adds that the retention rate after one year averaged nine out of 10, with the occasional person intentionally switching to another career.

“In the first five years, graduates could be found working at prestigious places like the Bistro on the Biltmore Estate, the Asheville Country Club and Grove Park Inn, to name a few,” Rogers says. “Some have gone on to be managers of restaurants. Some went on to further their degree at A-B Tech. Two came back and helped train.”

With the opening of Transformation Village in March 2021, Cox and A-B Tech helped ABCCM design another commercial teaching kitchen. While ABCCM has accepted female veterans since 2002 at its Steadfast House shelter, that tradition has grown at its newest facility, which now also has the capability to offer culinary training classes.

The more options like these, the better, says Tugman, who highly values support and collaboration with community organizations to provide the highest quality of care for veterans.

“Every veteran’s path to recovery is different,” she says. “Our community partners provide more opportunities for veterans to find a pathway to recovery that is meaningful to the individual veteran.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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