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

It gives him peace of mind and 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 garden at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus that has been providing fruit and vegetables to veterans for about five years.

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

Harold Massey harvests greens at the vegetable garden at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus facility. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Massey served in the Army for three years from 1979 to 1982 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 just sitting at 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 500-acre campus, was created 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 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 that.

Justin Bakaian, chief of nutrition and food service at Togus, said there is nothing like fresh fruits and vegetables, and the veterans fortunate enough to have had some get many health benefits.

The greenhouses at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus facility yield a variety of fresh produce.

Most produce consumed 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 with 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, it goes right into production if it’s a regular menu item, and it’s served within a couple of days.

HOPING FOR BIGGER HARVESTS

The garden isn’t big enough yet and there isn’t enough Togus-grown produce for every meal and every veteran, so most of the food consumed there comes from elsewhere. 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 temper their 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 the 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, as well as some help if the garden expands.

Harold Massey works in the vegetable garden at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus facility. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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 have never eaten kale, Bakaian said. Being exposed to fresh produce from a garden tended by a veteran is something other veterans on campus cherish.

“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’re eating them. He said one veteran told him earlier this year that, although he didn’t like salad, he was still going to eat one because it came from the Togus garden.

While there is no tangible way to show that veterans at Togus are healthier in body and mind because of fresh produce they’re offered, Bakaian said he 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.”

Jason Pafundi can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

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