Every Friday around lunchtime, between the towering trees behind Building 220 at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, a group of Veterans from all walks of life gather to cook, eat and strengthen their sense of community.
Together they make up a class known as Healthy Teaching Kitchen, a Whole Health offering that gives Veterans the chance to practice cooking skills, learn about healthy eating and spend time together.
At a recent Friday session, Navy Veteran Benny Rodriguez, who lives at the Domiciliary (DOM) Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment facility on campus, was busy dicing tomatoes. Rodriguez has been a class regular for over a month, and said he enjoys making his own food with fresh ingredients.
“When I was on the streets, it was like ‘eat whatever you can,’” he said. “That was a lot of processed food.” Many Veterans who attend the class have struggled with homelessness, which often comes with a lack of access to healthy foods.
Under the direction of Dr. Peter Capone-Newton, the class instructor, several other Veterans were hard at work chopping garlic, shallots and basil for a roasted tomato sauce to be paired with pasta and freshly grilled mushrooms, zucchini and bell peppers.
Capone-Newton, a physician based in Whole Health, who has been teaching the class since 2017, said “It’s about the hands-on experience and this idea of what it means to actually eat healthy.” Since its inception, there have been 2,057 visits to the kitchen, with 548 Veterans participating.
Capone-Newton said the meals are largely vegetarian in line with the USDA’s current “MyPlate” guidelines, which recommend that half of each meal should be made up of fruits and vegetables. While he doesn’t offer formal nutrition education, as a physician he shares general advice and direction for Veterans during class.
The Healthy Teaching Kitchen class is open access, so all Veterans are welcome to join. A diverse group usually trickles in throughout the two-hour session, including Veterans from Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team; Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services (CTRS); Patient Aligned Care Team and the DOM.
One of the female Veterans in attendance (who preferred to remain anonymous) said she was a former resident of CTRS, an emergency shelter program on campus featuring individual shelter units for chronically homeless Veterans. Currently she lives in the OASIS for Women Veterans transitional housing program on campus and is in the process of getting her own apartment through the Department of Housing and Urban Development – Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program.
The female Veteran said she was eager to take advantage of the healthy cooking classes and many other wellness programs VA offers. “I’m very aware of my health as I get older and the issues that are in my family that I’m trying to avoid.”
For those experiencing homelessness, barriers to healthy eating are numerous and include the inability to cook or store food, the higher cost of healthy foods, and a lack of access to healthy options, according to the study “Dietary Inadequacies Among US Homeless Families: An Enduring Problem,” by Rory Brown and Avik Chatterjee, published in 2018 in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.
At Healthy Teaching Kitchen, nutrient-dense salads, soups and pastas are among the most common culinary creations. The class has prepared chopped salad with garbanzo beans, black bean soup, loaded nachos and an array of other recipes over the years.
Veteran participants prepare the fresh ingredients outside on metal tables. Any items that require cooking are taken upstairs to Building 220’s kitchen, which is equipped with stoves, fridges and other appliances.
After everything is prepared, everyone eats together.
Capone-Newton said that because cooking and eating are universal experiences, the class helps to foster and build relationships for participants.
“It’s relaxing, it’s educational, it’s healthy,” said Air Force Veteran Kelly Evans. “It’s helping out with my anxiety and PTSD, so I really like it.”
Healthy Teaching Kitchen is held Fridays at 11 a.m. at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center behind Building 220 (Rose Garden). All Veterans are welcome. For more information, call 310-268-3276.