In early 2018, a therapist working with Tallahassee-area veterans approached UF/IFAS Extension Leon County horticulture agent Mark Tancig with an idea. She wanted to start a group gardening program at the Sergeant Ernest I. “Boots” Thomas VA Clinic as a new way to engage Veterans, who receive supportive services as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program.
Tancig jumped at the chance to help, planning bimonthly presentations often centered on a hands-on activity.
“We would take cuttings and teach them about propagation, or another time we made self-watering buckets,” Tancig recalled of the program’s early days. And although the therapist who brought the program to fruition has since moved on and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated in-person programming, Tancig said the program has continued on and evolved.
“Over time, this core group of five or so Veterans were coming to every class – really interested in the gardening aspect of it – and they wanted to expand it to do some actual gardening on-site,” he said.
Again, Tancig got to work. After gaining the necessary approvals, he and a dedicated Master Gardener Volunteer, who was also a Veteran himself, built four raised garden beds and installed them outside the clinic. Just recently, four more raised beds were added.
The beds have been planted with all manner of healthy, seasonal crops suited for the North Florida climate: tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens like collards and spinach, and more. Tancig stops by most mornings on his way to work to water or pull a few weeds, but much of the day-to-day crop maintenance falls to the Veterans in the program and the VA staff, many of whom are also Veterans. Tancig pointed out the staff’s support was even more vital throughout the pandemic.
But the best part, says Sarah Hinson, a nurse practitioner with the HUD-VASH Program, is that both the staff and Veterans receiving services are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“A big part of Veterans’ health problems is nutrition, so this is a way to relate what they need for good health,” Hinson said. “It’s really a positive program for Veterans to have socialization, and it helps them learn how to relate gardening to planning for life.”
Hinson said the program fits perfectly into the VA’s Whole Health approach, and added that the participants in the gardening group report feeling more peaceful. The staff often provides recipes themed around the freshly harvested produce, as well.
“It’s a way for Veterans who face food insecurity to enjoy fresh-grown food,” she said, explaining that the majority of the Veterans they serve are on a limited income. “Some of them cooked in the military, so they know what to do with the food. It’s just about access to these resources.”
Tancig, too, can see the progress and looks forward to keeping the program running for as long as possible.
“I know they appreciate it, having a way to educate and engage a group of folks who can be hard to reach, but I also like helping them,” he said. “We enjoy our time together. We’ve gone on field trips to pick blueberries or to a local nursery. We have fun, and they get fresh fruits and veggies out of it, too.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.
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