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Huntington Station garden brings vets and veggies together

Veteran Robert Bishop of Huntington tends to his

Veteran Robert Bishop of Huntington tends to his vegetables at the Gateway Park Community Garden in Huntington Station on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016. The community garden has set aside garden beds for former servicemen and -women to grow their own fresh produce. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Eileen Pillmeier was grateful for the packaged food she received from a food bank, but a new program to help veterans grow their own produce has her experimenting with fresh kale smoothies and using other vegetables that hadn’t been available through food assistance.

“I didn’t grow up eating Swiss chard or kale, and now we’re planting bok choy,” said Pillmeier, an Army Reserve nurse living in Huntington Station. “I wasn’t really a beet person, but now I am. I think it’s much healthier.”

Pillmeier, 56, is taking advantage of new veterans-only planting beds that opened in June at the Gateway Community Garden in Huntington Station. The project was established through a collaboration between The Harry Chapin Food Bank and Humanitarian Center and the Long Island Community Agriculture Network, both based in Huntington Station.

The network manages the community garden, which has 10 beds tended by veterans. The 20-foot by 5-foot plots can feed a family of four for a year if planted strategically for each season, Forest said. Right now, they are filled with greens, okra, peppers, zucchini and eggplants. The tomato plants have been picked clean as the fruit ripened.

Long Island has the second highest rate of returning veterans in the United States, according to the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island. As of June, 639 veterans were registered for food assistance in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, according to Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge-based umbrella organization for 575 regional food security groups, including the Chapin food bank in Huntington Station.

“In general, food pantries don’t offer fresh produce because of storage problems,” said Heather Forest, a co-founder of the agriculture network. “The food is often canned and boxed, and not the highest quality of nutrition that you can get from organic vegetables.”

Eight of the new garden plots are assigned to veterans who signed up for the program. The other two are shared, with the food they produce passed on to other veterans and families through the Chapin Food Bank. Pillmeier and other vets also donate any excess veggies from their own gardens, further expanding veterans’ access to fresh produce.

Since Aug. 2 — the first day of harvest — the veterans’ gardens have yielded 98 pounds of produce, said Idalia Boczek, manager of the Chapin Huntington Station food bank.

The food bank, using its website, social media and printed fliers, recruited veterans and volunteers for the gardens. The agriculture network, which started the community garden in 2010, got veterans involved in building their own new beds, and then offered classes on growing organic vegetables.

“I just like the mental aspect of it,” Pillmeier said of gardening. “You go down there and you’re outside, in nature. It’s a learning thing for me, because I’ve never done anything like that before.”

The network plans to add more veteran-specific growing beds in the future, including some raised versions that will be accessible to people in wheelchairs or with disabilities.

“Just because someone is in need of a food pantry doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the healthiest food possible,” Forest said.

Veterans seeking food assistance on Long Island

Veterans are the largest group served by Long Island Cares, the umbrella food bank for a network of regional food-related community service agencies.

According to the agency, as of June:

  • 639 veterans registered for food assistance on Long Island
  • 52 percent of those vets are disabled
  • 34 percent are unemployed
  • 30 percent are retired
  • 6 percent are homeless

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