A cooking program in upstate New York helps veterans find camaraderie in the kitchen.
Military service can change the way you eat. You have to scarf down your meals in basic training and survive on MREs when you're deployed. Some veterans get out of the military without ever learning to cook.
A program near Rochester, N.Y. is working to help veterans build a better relationship with food - and a sense of community - through cooking and eating together.
At a recent get-together of the "Cooking with Heroes" program, the kitchen was hopping. Tacos, salad, chicken wings, chocolate-covered apples and sherbet punch all were on the lunch menu.
Chef Ellen Adams darted around, helping people make their dishes.
"These guys are working on the chicken legs, they've tossed them in flour and olive oil, and now they're in the oven," she explained over the clatter of pots and pans.
Adams served in the Air Force for 20 years. She went on to culinary school and became a personal chef. But she wanted to do more to help veterans.
She got the opportunity to go on the reality TV cooking show, "Chopped," and she pledged to use any winnings to start a veterans' cooking school in Rochester. But Adams didn't make it past the first round of the show. She got "chopped," eliminated from the competition.
"I was so mad," Adams said. "I was like, 'How can you chop me? Here I am representing the United States Air Force.'"
An anonymous donation
The setback didn't derail Adams' dream of starting a veterans' cooking school. The night the show aired, she got a text message from a stranger in California - a woman who donates to veterans' causes. The woman offered $10,000 to help Adams start her school.
"I was dumbfounded," Adams said. "I thought it was like my cousin trying to punk me."
It was legit. The donor wrote a check.
Adams started the program at the EquiCenter outside of Rochester, a horse facility that already was running therapeutic horsemanship and farming programs for veterans. Adding food seemed like a good fit.
A lot of organizations, including the VA, run cooking and nutrition programs for veterans. But "Cooking with Heroes" is one of the few that emphasizes the communal value of food.
"What I experienced was a lot of veterans getting together again and feeling that camaraderie that I had missed for ten years," said Nate Bush, one of the first veterans to go through the program. "We were eating food and working together and preparing the food from seed all the way to harvest."
Bush works for the program now. And he says growing and cooking gets veterans invested in what they're eating.
"That food is special," he said. "You know where it came from, and you know what you did to bring it to your table."
Veteran Chuck Dill said he didn't know how to cook or garden before he joined the program, but that's not the whole reason he decided to participate. He served in Iraq and Kuwait and was injured during his service. He walks with a cane now, and it's hard for him to get around.
"It keeps you at home after a while because you're always in pain," Dill said. "But this gives you an excuse to get out and be around people who understand what you've been through, so you don't feel judged by people."
Preparing for the communal meal, Dill chopped carrots from the EquiCenter’s garden.
“Some of these are for salad, and some of these are for dipping," he explained.
When the food was ready, everyone loaded up their plates, squeezed around the farm table, and dug in.
Meal by meal, veterans here are starting to heal. And they've got some delicious medicine.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.