CHELSEA — Harold Massey said working every day in the community garden at the federal veterans’ facility in Chelsea is his therapy.

It gives him peace of mind and it’s given him a purpose in life he said didn’t exist before.

Massey, 56, is a U.S. Army veteran who came to Maine about six years ago from Rhode Island. He’s spent most of his time the past two years tending to the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus garden, which has been providing fresh fruit and produce to veterans for about five years.

“I’m pretty much out here all by myself, just me and God,” Massey said while harvesting kale on an unseasonably warm mid-October morning. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Massey served in the Army for three years from 1979-82 and spent his life around Providence, Rhode Island, working as an irrigation specialist. He said he’s always liked being outdoors and working in the garden because it keeps him from sitting on the computer using Facebook. Helping others and giving back to people who’ve done so much for him over the years was important to Massey when he came to Maine.

“I used to be the guy who put something in the ground and then watched you maintain it,” he said. “Now I’m doing it all, learning new things I never could have imagined, and helping so many others who have helped me.”

The garden, on a patch of land off South Gate Road on the sprawling 500-acre Togus campus, was created five years ago through a grant to promote patient-centered care and employee wellness.

When the grant funding ran out, Togus officials knew there was potential to do more, and there was widespread support among Togus medical staff, employees and patients. Togus has 230 doctors, 38 nurse practitioners and 44 physician assistants serving about 42,000 veterans annually.

“We had a lot of people interested in food as medicine rather than medicine as medicine,” said Erik Sargent, the manager of the facility’s physical rehabilitation department. “It became a community effort as everybody here glommed onto (the idea) as the right thing to do.”

‘FULL-CIRCLE EXPERIENCE’

The garden is divided into two sections — there are beds tended by nurses, physicians and others, and a set of beds managed by Massey. During this year’s growing season, Massey has harvested about 750 pounds of fresh tomatoes, kale, lettuce, green beans, spinach, cucumbers, carrots, summer squash, radishes, Swiss chard and herbs that have been used in the Togus kitchen and by health care providers on campus.

“This is a full-circle experience, because this is helping me, I’m helping (the kitchen and staff) and they’re helping others,” Massey said. “It just keeps going around.”

Togus personnel and patients consumed around 8,000 pounds of fresh produce last year, so the 750 pounds the garden produced is just a small portion of the overall consumption.

Justin Bakaian, the chief of nutrition and food service, said there is nothing like fresh fruits and vegetables, and the veterans fortunate enough to have had some get many health benefits that one doesn’t receive when eating something off a shelf at a grocery store.

Most produce eaten in Maine, Bakaian said, comes from somewhere else — like New Jersey, California, Florida or Peru — because of the state’s shorter growing season. To survive the trip to Maine, fruits and vegetables have to be harvested before they are fully ripe, which often impacts the texture, flavor and nutritional value of the produce.

World War II and Korean War veteran William Laney said he doesn’t know how much fresh produce from the Togus garden he’s eaten since he’s been a patient, but he said there’s no comparison to traditional hospital food.

“I think it’s great, because I don’t care where it’s from, if it’s hand-grown, it’s better than what you’d pick up at the market,” Laney said.

Bakaian said the produce from the garden served to veterans is “as fresh as it gets.” He said when Massey brings a tote filled with his latest harvest, if it’s a regular menu item, it’s goes right into production and is served two or three days later.

PROGRAM BEGINS

The garden isn’t big enough yet and there isn’t enough of the Togus-grown produce for every meal and every veteran, so most of the food consumed is from an outside source. Bakaian said the staff tries to keep veterans abreast of what’s going on in the garden, and they encourage people to be excited, but they also want them to have tempered expectations.

“What we serve is dependent on what’s coming out of the ground, and Maine poses different challenges than other agricultural regions,” he said. “We know where we want to go, but we aren’t there yet.”

Laney, 88, said he isn’t sure if there are many people who know the garden exists and what it does for veterans at Togus. He said more outreach by medical providers and Togus staff could go a long way to raising the garden’s profile.

“I think this ought to be talked about a little more,” he said.

Laney grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and had a 58-acre property with a large garden in western New York for almost 40 years. He said if veterans could get their hands dirty helping in the garden, they’d be more inclined to want to eat the healthier foods they’re given.

“I think it’s a very good idea, and I think expanding (the garden) would be a good idea, also,” Laney said.

Sargent and Bakaian said these last two years are just the beginning of the program. They said there are probably other gardens at other VA facilities across the country, but both are confident that the Togus garden is at the forefront of the farm-to-table-to-veterans movement.

Massey said he wants more space, too, but he also requested with a smile, some additional help if the garden expands.

HARVESTING EXCITEMENT

Sargent said he’s been trying to get more people at Togus involved with the garden, but he admitted the response from other departments has been inconsistent. There are some nurses who’ll bring a group of patients down to pick weeds or just enjoy the garden’s serenity, but he said there can be so much more.

“If you look at the traditional acute health care model, it’s what we’ve done since the Civil War,” Sargent said. “The concept is still new, and developing programs like this is the health care of the future. It’s going to take generations.”

Some of the veterans at Togus, Bakaian said, have never eaten kale, and being exposed to fresh produce from a garden tended by a veteran is something cherished on campus.

“You can see their eyes light up,” he said. “There’s a lot of genuine excitement to know that the food was not only grown here, but it was harvested by one of their brothers.”

As a dietitian, Bakaian said he doesn’t care how or why someone eats fruits or vegetables so long as they are eaten. He said one veteran told him he didn’t like salad but he was going to eat one earlier this year because it came from the Togus garden. There’s no surefire, tangible way to show that veterans at Togus are healthier in body and mind because of the fresh produce offered, but Bakaian knows it’s making a difference.

“I feel confident saying that we’re serving fresher and healthier fruits and vegetables,” he said, “and that’s a step toward better overall health.”

Diana Brookes is a registered nurse at Togus’ Hospice unit, and she said good nutrition is part of making the end of life journey as joyful as possible. She said having people stop eating can be very difficult, but fresh garden produce helps support nutrition at the end of life.

“We sow seeds of love here, and the garden is an extension of life and helps brings veterans and their caretakers together,” Brookes said.

The sowing of actual seeds in the garden has been very therapeutic to veterans in Hospice, Brookes said. Her favorite memory is sowing seeds for string beans with a veteran who later died.

“The beans grew, and we were able to share them with other veterans as a remembrance of that individual,” she said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ