As part of our year-end review, we're revisiting some of the most important stories from 2014. Here, an organization that's helping veterans through farming.
Fred-Curtis Lewis prepares for farm work with veterans. All photos: Growing Warriors Project
When Fred-Curtis Lewis returned from multiple tours of Afghanistan and Iraq with a traumatic brain injury in 2009, his brother Mike, a farmers’ advocate, was desperate to help him. On top of his injury, Fred-Curtis was having difficulty adapting to civilian life, and by his own admission, he was “lost.”
Watching his brother struggle, Mike Lewis resolved to channel his passion for agriculture—he’d already made a name for himself lobbying on behalf of nonprofits such as Community Farm Alliance and Farm Aid—into founding the Growing Warriors Project in rural Kentucky in 2012.
"Our initial mission was to teach veterans how to grow their own food," Lewis explained to us, citing a disturbing fact by way of explanation: Military families relied on food stamps more in 2013 than in any preceding year. And so the program launched monthly classes on topics including seed saving, food serving, and healthy eating choices. Immediately, Lewis realized he had hit upon something.
Mike and Fred-Curtis Lews inspect a Growing Warrior Project field.
"We found that six out of the 14 participants in that first class [of veterans] are now farming on some level commercially,” Lewis said. “And then we started getting flooded with veterans that just wanted to farm.”
In 2013, Growing Warriors helped about 65 veteran families grow 18,000 pounds of organic food. Today, it works with a smattering of farms, community gardens, and other agricultural projects across three states and plans to operate in up to 10 by the end of 2014. The project has also begun growing hemp—a newly legal possibility thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill—for North Carolina hemp tempeh producer Smiling Hara.
But for Lewis, success is measured in more personal terms.
"Watching my brother go from somebody we didn’t recognize to being what we had always remembered, slowly but relatively quickly over a number of weeks on the farm, was really when we started reaching more veterans," he said, adding that his brother now serves as the group’s service director. “We’d just like to provide services to as many veterans as we can.”
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