Xismari Collazo-Colón, RDN, LD, wanted a career in which she could serve others. At 16, she entered the natural sciences program at the University of Puerto Rico to fulfill requirements for medical school. But Collazo-Colón quickly discovered the ability to heal with food, so she shifted her studies to nutrition with a focus on diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “I love the idea of healing the body while enjoying eating good food,” says Collazo-Colón.
Now, Collazo-Colón is a clinical dietitian in the High Intensity Psychiatric Unit at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Tuskegee, Ala. She is responsible for the Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, which includes the Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans Program and Psychosocial Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program — services that assist veterans experiencing issues such as illness, addictive behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional problems. In 2014, Collazo-Colón collaborated on the Veteran’s Garden Project, designed to provide educational and therapeutic benefits to patients. To introduce nutrition basics, classes include container gardening, healthy kitchen sessions using produce grown in the garden, anti-inflammatory nutrition and a diabetes group, which educates veterans on using food to control illness and chronic pain.
“The garden not only helps patients who have different comorbidities, but also those who have been rejected by society for drug abuse, alcoholism or serious mental disorders,” says Collazo-Colón. “It encourages them to stay active and well.”
As part of the project, veterans can grow plants from seeds, harvest crops and eat the fresh produce, which helps fulfill some nutritional deficiencies. Patients also learn about foods’ nutritional value, possible health benefits and farming fundamentals.
“I was inspired by the nobility of the project and the effort and satisfaction shown by the participants in the garden,” Collazo-Colón recalls. “This led me to adopt the project as my own and coordinate resources to make it grow.”
Since its start, the Veteran’s Garden Project has produced up to 300 pounds per month of fresh produce and donated more than 1,000 pounds of food to local schools, churches and shelters. “This experience has been very rewarding for participants because, other than sharing fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs, they recognize the nutritional value and healing properties of the produce they are giving to others,” says Collazo-Colón.
The project has been rewarding for Collazo-Colón, too, for somewhat different reasons. “Personally, the most rewarding aspect of this effort is the capacity for giving back,” she says. “My patients receive nutritional knowledge and gardening skills, and the community receives produce harvested with the passion and dedication of the patients who are trying to transform their lives.”