Recovering servicemembers planted the first vegetables and herbs in the USO Warrior and Family Center’s organic garden Tuesday, as part of the USO’s new Start2Finish-Organic Vegetable Gardening Program.
The program is the first of its kind, designed to help wounded, ill and injured servicemembers recover through gardening and learning to cook healthy meals with the produce.
“We’re working with them to try to get them out, doing some therapeutic activity, and reconnecting with nature,” said Michael Hartzell, hospital program specialist for recreation programs with the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore.
Hartzell, who has 15 years of experience in landscaping and gardening, came up with the idea for the program.
“The idea of this is to have the gardening program and then offer minimal cooking classes, in which they can use a lot of the stuff that they’re growing as ingredients in the recipes, and kind of see it all the way from the very beginning to the end,” he said.
In March, servicemembers selected seeds and planted them in seed boxes to grow under special lights inside the USO until spring, Hartzell said.
On Tuesday, a different group of servicemembers planted peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, herbs, and lettuces in the three of the new raised garden beds behind the USO, provided by local Boy Scouts. (The fourth garden bed is reserved for Soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion).
The servicemembers said they appreciated the chance to get out get their hands dirty.
“It’s nice being outside, just to connect with Mother Nature,” said Seaman Gregory Rice, U.S. Coast Guard Yard.
Pfc. Mica Gabala, 10th Mountain Division (Fort Drum, N.Y.), added that he used to garden as a teenager and enjoyed the chance to pick it up again.
“As a teenager, I planted many different types of vegetables out in gardens. It was just kind of fun, reliving that experience and just being outside,” he said.
Now that the plants have been moved to the garden beds, the servicemembers in the program are responsible for tending them, Hartzell said.
Once the plants yield vegetables, Hartzell and his team will host cooking classes every other Friday, so servicemembers can take turns gardening and learning to cook healthy meals.
“Ten of the group members will participate in a cooking class instructed by myself or a volunteer, while the other 10 are doing gardening, and then the group will eat together. The following week, it flip-flops,” he said.
The cooking class will focus on preparing meals with minimal ingredients and basic cooking skills, he said.
“A lot of these younger Soldiers really don’t have a concept of cooking, which results in eating all of the sugary, pre-made foods. We’re trying to get away from that,” he said. “Teaching them how to cook and not making it overwhelming is kind of the big key. We’re going to do a lot of grilling options, like showing them how to grill fish and healthy lean meat.”
The Start2Finish-Organic Vegetable Gardening Program also supports the military’s Healthy Base Initiative, Hartzell added, which was created to combat obesity and tobacco use in the military through healthy living.
For more information on the Healthy Base Initiative, visit www.militaryonesource.mil/hbi.