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Gardening projects change lives of troubled veterans

Encouraging recovering military veterans to work in community gardens helps lift them out of depression, increases their self-esteem – and even gets them eating better, says Vietnam War vet and gardening guru Howard Hinterthuer.

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How does the OTP introduce veterans to gardening and spark their interest in growing their own food?

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OTP brings together people who have gardening in their background with people who don’t. Inevitably, someone who comes into the garden who was raised in Mississippi will talk about their grandmother's and their grandfather’s garden. And for people who haven’t gardened, it’s delightful for them to see where an onion comes from and to pick a cherry tomato off of the vine and pop it in their mouths. When they taste the explosion of sweetness in their labor, it’s easy for them to eat healthier. Once our veterans have tried our produce in the garden, they realize that they like it.

What kind of changes have you seen in the veterans who have been working with OTP?

I’ve seen people evolve in a number of different ways. The most dramatic instance is when someone comes in and they’re extremely depressed. We had a key player last season who was like that. When I explained what we wanted him to do, he’d say, “I’m a good solider. I can do that.” Over the years, though, he worked closely with me on a couple of projects. One day, he was in the garden and told me, “You know, this program has just saved my life.” And now he’s in Nevada talking about his gardening experiences. To engage other veterans, we’re putting in a small aquaponics system that we worked on last year. We’ll redo it again this year. Additionally, we’re thinking of adding a green house. The veterans responsible for assembling these projects need to have some plumbing skills. Cutting barrels in half, working with PVC pipes, and other tasks all require certain skills. Our veterans have to apply carpentry skills, too. When they have the chance to use their skills again and to learn new ones, they feel useful. These projects bring our veterans out of themselves. They take pride in their involvement and love explaining their work to our visitors. They are able to think about what’s possible instead of what’s impossible.

How do you see the program itself changing in the future? Could the concepts behind OTP expand into other veteran recovery programs?

In terms of the future, we’re expanding our gardens and renting out two greenhouses that we’ve used in previous winters. We have received funding through the department of labor for it to heat these green houses with compost. This work will be a part of a jobs program to teach growing skills to our veterans. A big component of our expansion is sustainability. Using compost to heat our green houses is an example of the sustainable techniques we want to apply.  In terms of expanding into other veteran recovery programs, after the TED talk I gave, I was contacted by a woman in Scotland working with veterans of the British military. Her program used horticulture for veterans’ recovery, so I think gardening is an approach to dealing with difficult issues that can definitely be replicated in other places.

• Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

• This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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