Bounty from Vets' garden benefits Fisher House - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Bounty from Vets' garden benefits Fisher House

Garden produce donated to Fisher House

Veterans Debra Kleist, center, and Justin Reeder deliver produce to Fisher House manager Jennifer Kiefer, left. The produce was grown in a garden tended by Veterans on the Milwaukee VA grounds.

By David Walter
Thursday, September 23, 2021

A small garden can yield a big bounty.

That’s definitely true this year as the garden tended by Veterans at the Milwaukee VA has produced an overflow crop, which has benefited families served by the Fisher House.

In recent weeks, Veterans have harvested a variety of fruits and vegetables from the garden -- including tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, string beans, tomatillos, squash, eggplant and peppers – and delivered them in person to the Fisher House, where guests have incorporated the fresh produce into home-cooked meals.

“It’s been great,” said Jennifer Kiefer, manager of the Fisher House, which is located just west of the Veterans’ garden on the Milwaukee VA campus. “It’s very nice to have fresh vegetables. The families like it, and it’s great that they’re grown by Veterans.”

Vets garden
Veteran Debra Kleist, right, and occupational therapist Ericka Napoli harvest produce from the garden.

Fisher House provides lodging for families whose loved ones are receiving treatment in the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. It features a large kitchen where guests and volunteers often prepare meals.

The garden is tended by Veterans taking part in the “Soil for the Soul” group, which is part of the Whole Health program.

Occupational therapist Ericka Napoli leads the group, but she gives all credit for the garden’s bounty to the Veterans. While the group meets officially just once a week, Napoli said it’s not unusual for Veterans to pop in numerous times to water and weed the garden.

“Our garden is flourishing more than it ever has, and it’s because of our dedicated Veterans,” Napoli said. “They come by and do things in the garden on their own time. They put in the extra effort, and the result is the garden is looking better and better.”

Frank Steffel picking tomatoes

Veteran Frank Steffel picks tomatoes in the "Soil for the Soul" garden on the Milwaukee VA grounds.

It’s gotten to the point where the garden – nestled near the southeast corner of Building 43 – yields more produce than the group knows what to do with.

“It’s way more than ever before,” Napoli said of the garden, which has been in existence about five years.

Some of the produce goes to dietitians for their Healthy Teaching Kitchen. The rest goes home with Veterans or anyone who wants it, Napoli said. The donation to Fisher House is new this year.

“Our plants were growing so well, we had an overabundance of produce,” Napoli said. “We wanted to donate it to someone in need, so we reached out to the Fisher House.”

Vets in garden
Veterans show off the bounty of produce they grew in the "Soil for the Soul" garden.

Kiefer said her facility was happy to take it, noting that volunteer chefs also used the produce to cook up meals for guests to take home.

Napoli said the Veterans who tend the garden are a dedicated, diverse and close-knit group who don’t want to stop when the growing season ends.

“They love this program; they want to do it over the winter,” she said, adding that one of her big dreams for the group is a greenhouse.

“As the season ends and we move inside, we do more of a nature and creative arts theme, using products that can go back into the garden or that we picked from the garden. We use them creatively.”


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