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VA Hospital program teaches veterans healthy cooking and eating

  • Dietician Robin LaCroix prepares a homemade salad dressing as Lead Cook Eddy Travis, left, simmers a one pot meal of brown rice, ground turkey and vegetables during the second session of a six-week Healthy Teaching Kitchen course at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. The class aims to teach nutrition, meal planning and preparation to veterans and is part of a wellness program that also offers classes in yoga, and tai-chi. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eddy Travis, lead cook at the VA medical center in White River Junction, Vt., melts mozzarella cheese on top of a one-pot meal of turkey, brown rice and vegetables during the healthy teaching kitchen class for veterans at the hospital Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ben Magliano, of White River Junction, left, and Bill Hoag, of Hanover, taste a dish prepared by chef Eddy Travis and dietician Robin LaCroix during their healthy teaching kitchen class for veterans at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chef Eddy Travis measures out a serving of the turkey and rice dish he prepared for the healthy teaching kitchen class at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. The goal of the class session was to prepare a meal with similar taste to a favorite recipe, but that substitutes ingredients to reduce salt, fat and other additives. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2019 4:50:27 PM
Modified: 11/19/2019 4:50:21 PM

As she assembled individual salads in paper bowls to serve alongside the one-pot meal that VA lead cook Eddy Travis was cooking on a hot plate, Robin LaCroix peppered her students with questions about phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables, fat content in ground meat and emulsifiers in homemade salad dressings.

Nothing seemed to stump the seven veterans and two veterans’ wives gathered behind a long table, watching Travis dice onions, chop peppers and measure seasonings.

There were, it turns out, a lot of cooks in this makeshift kitchen. But too many? Nah.

One of several classes operated in the Health and Wellness Education Center at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, the Healthy Teaching Kitchen program offers weekly cooking demonstrations, along with practical tips on meal planning, grocery shopping, budgeting and nutrition. For some veterans, the six-week program is a guided tour of brand new territory, orienting them to the basics of kitchen prep and cooking. For others, like this group, most of whom seemed to know their way around a spice rack already, there are different benefits.

“I think one of the best things about it is that people just really enjoy it,” said LaCroix, a registered dietitian who specializes in health promotion and disease prevention at the VA.

When veterans come to the VA for nutrition counseling, they can’t always call to mind the questions they want to ask or the matters they need help with. But when they’re gathered around a table together enjoying a freshly cooked meal, something changes, said LaCroix who has run the Healthy Teaching Kitchen program here for nine years and is also co-leader of the national Healthy Teaching Kitchen.

“The idea of bringing in the food and cooking and being able to taste it — the questions just start coming,” she said.

As they watched Travis and LaCroix prepare a healthy lunch last Tuesday, the students, mostly older veterans, asked questions about salt intake, portion sizes and calculating calories.

These are common areas of concern not just for veterans but for Americans in general, LaCroix said. “People’s eating habits are in such a crisis right now,” she said.

The crisis appears to be worse for veterans: They have more health problems and higher obesity rates than the general population, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Many of the veterans LaCroix works with are older men who live alone. A lot of them never learned to cook.

John Blair, 72, of Alstead, N.H., loves to cook. While serving as a finance clerk in the Vietnam War, he developed a love for tropical fruits fresh off the tree and for the many varieties of rice served in the local eateries. He also picked up a bad habit in the Army.

“Basically, in boot camp, they say if your fork stops moving, you’re done. You just have to shovel,” Blair said as he awaited a taste of Travis’ “One-Pot Wonder Stuffed Pepper Skillet.”

Even though he’s a seasoned cook, Blair is eager to pick up tips and tricks, nutrition advice and new recipes. “I may go to five classes and learn two things, but those two things might be really useful,” he said.

After finishing his meal, Blair stuck around to swap ideas with Travis.

A Navy veteran who cooked on a submarine stationed near Pearl Harbor in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Travis strives to elevate hospital food.

“The challenge is to try to make food taste good and look appealing with the dietary restrictions that people have,” said Travis, who recently began a program cooking gourmet meals for the hospital’s Residential Recovery Center and rotating the favorites onto the regular hospital menu.

At the Healthy Teaching Kitchen, Travis tries to demonstrate dishes that are not only nutritious and tasty but easy to make. The point, after all, is to get participants cooking healthy meals at home.

There are signs that the program is meeting that goal. LaCroix recently co-authored a study that sought to measure the outcomes for participants at 95 of the VA’s 119 Healthy Teaching Kitchens around the country. The study used surveys to assess participants’ habits before and after taking the class. It indicated a slight, though not statistically significant, improvement in 14 different areas. The study, which will be published in the December issue of Public Health Practice, concluded that the Healthy Teaching Kitchens “may be effective at encouraging healthy eating among veterans.”

The veterans in last week’s class needed no encouragement to finish their meals of brown rice, peppers and ground turkey, sprinkled with just a pinch of mozzarella cheese. After class, only empty bowls remained on the table.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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