STAG VETS Showcases Veterans in Culinary and Agriculture

Philip Hanes

Jon Jackson founded STAG VETS in 2014 to assist veterans recovering from the trauma they experience during their service. Jon served six deployments over eight years with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been awarded numerous decorations including a Bronze Star for exceptional Cross Continental Management skills. Jackson explains to Food Tank how STAG VETS works, how the organization can help both veterans and civilians, and how it creates a better food system.

Food Tank (FT): What kind of challenges are Veterans facing in our current system?

Jon Jackson (JJ): Veterans are struggling with invisible wounds. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brain injuries, things like that. Veterans are homeless because of these invisible wounds. Or they feel displaced. The faith and trust that once existed with the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) is gone. The VA is trying to reach out, but veterans don't have faith in the system. They don't feel they can reach out to get the assistance they need. That's why STAG VETS was created.

I'm a disabled veteran myself. I have chronic PTSD from all the combat I've been through. After serving six deployments, I was looking for programs to help someone like me. I was looking for a program that addresses my needs so I can decompress and get on with my life. It's been pretty traumatic over the last ten years fighting this war. And that's my life.

FT: How is STAG VETS unique?

JJ: From day one when you get out of the military, and you're back in civilian life they expect you to "turn it off." STAG VETS is saying "no." The ramp up that we needed to go through to get into service, the training et cetera, now we need to ramp that down to being a civilian again. But from the day you get out, there is nothing there for you to ramp down with. What does that look like? Until now, there's been no answer for that. We created STAG VETS because we really see the link between why so many veterans are committing suicide, why there's so much homelessness, and why there are family problems. We work to build that bridge from where they are now to where they can be. This is the group that we are going to extend our arms to, just like on the battlefield, we're not going to leave you behind.

FT: How did the focus on agriculture and food develop?

JJ: When we decided to create STAG, one of the key components was the mission. This is part of any successful veteran program for healing, but one that has been missing. There's too many simple short courses you can bring a vet to for PTSD. That's not enough. Veterans need purpose. One of the things I thought about, while developing this program was, what can we do as veterans so we can serve again. Where can we serve again? And what mission can I give to veterans who are looking to serve again? One of the main issues we have in America is being able to find access to local foods, so everyone on the socioeconomic ladder can have access to whole and natural foods. Not only are we giving veterans the healing they deserve, but also a mission, something they can feel a part of while also helping the broad spectrum of America. We are able to take a veteran who was possibly homeless and having issues and create an individual who can take the lead within our food revolution.

With our campuses, we can teach veterans critical skills. We can build an infrastructure so we can connect communities and small farmers so their products can get to people who want to eat locally. We can be the catalyst for small farmers and small businesses to get their products to the shelves. From warehouse distribution to marketing research and everything in between, we will be able to pull everything together under the STAG brand.

We need to create a robust agribusiness to support communities, local employment, and veterans. Our products will also give back to the non-profit. We're taking care of veterans. We're employing veterans. We're ramping up our business model to stay competitive and give local communities access to whole and natural foods. This model creates the funding necessary for our veterans healing program to be top rate. I want a one hundred percent quality veterans healing program. Our motto is creating our own change, so we're not dependent on federal funding or subsidies. We hire the best. We build the best, so we can give veterans the best, so they can go back out and live a productive life.

Unemployment for veterans is huge. Instead of sitting around and waiting for someone else to do what needs to be done we create the program, create the infrastructure, and build what we need for veterans. We will turn out the very best food ambassadors from our campus who not only have the skills in the kitchen and in management, but also understand the trends in what Americans are looking for regarding how we eat. That's how I picture the new vet with the new mission and how to bring that person back into society.

FT: How does agricultural and culinary work relate to the military?

JJ: It's the perfect fit, because you're taking someone who if I tell them, hey you need to be up at 0500, you have to do this, and you give them a bunch of time hacks and at 1200 hours you need to do this, that veteran gets it. That veteran understands what that type of life is. Whereas a regular civilian has not usually been indoctrinated into that sort of discipline. What PTSD therapists are doing now is retreating from what veterans do the most.

I have a veteran who if I put him in the most chaotic place, he can think clearly. He's messed up right now because everything is too slow paced. It's not moving, it's not active enough for him. You put him in an environment where things have to happen, the fire is ignited inside of him and it's like hey go go go go. Who better understands that than a veteran?

There's the competitiveness to be the best. And every veteran is competitive. Most veterans are A-type personalities. They understand structure. They understand rank. The guy who is working underneath the guy who is being taught, that guy wants to be as good if not better than the one who's teaching. That can only bring about the best of qualities into any workforce when you have that type of commitment. And every vet has to pay attention to safety. They pay attention to quality, what right looks like.

What frustrates veterans within the regular workforce is that most of the people they work with are not as acute to those types of things. The integrity is not there. And it bothers a lot of veterans. This is what I tell people that are interested in hiring veterans. You're getting someone who is going to pay absolute attention to your bottom line no matter what, especially in a kitchen. If temperatures are not right, if safety protocol is not up to standard, you're going to get somebody who's going to speak up. You're taking that same mentality from the military and bringing it into an environment that can thrive off of that and can benefit from that.

STAG is going to make a difference. We transform that veteran from a place where he's confused and displaced and show him a way to use those skills he's learned in combat with his special training and how to apply those same skills into a work setting that will make him shine.

FT: What does STAG VETS have planned?

JJ: Some of the main issues we deal with now relate to funding, being able to fund our program appropriately. My idea for success is turning that veteran out into the workforce, back to his family, where he can take care of himself. The big plan is to have the campus and the robust agriculture business. We need to develop the agribusiness first to fund the non-profit. Once the veterans graduate from the school they can get into the business. We're working on 20 acres and renaming the land Comfort Farms that will serve as an acute veterans crisis center in Georgia, a facility for vets to come to cool off. We'll have therapists there. We're going to turn that 20 acres into an agribusiness, creating our own products and controlling every step of the process. Veterans will be able to understand the logistics of that business. We are also going to start a culinary school that will not only teach culinary but also farming, how you grow food, how to slaughter, butcher, charcuterie, everything about food from the time it goes into the ground to the time it's served on the table.

It's a really good time to show everyone, our communities, the VA, the nation: Hey, this is what right looks like, on a small scale. And by showing them that, it's easier to see how to transfer that to a bigger scale.