How Gardens Help Keep Peope Out of Jail
By Emily Powell
Your garden is something to be proud of, and you know it. You’ve been nurturing and pampering seedlings in obsequious efforts to refine the sustainability of your lifestyle, pursue a hobby, or bring food awareness to the community, and the fruits of your labor deserve recognition. But home-grown gardens and urban farms can do more than just bring us the warm and fuzzies for knowing we’re being more responsible for the planet: these magical gardens can be valuable social and economic tools in sustainable development. For example, gardens bring life and hope to gentrifying communities and individuals suffering in the transition from prison to the real world. Let the communities of Oakland, San Francisco, and Fort Collins demonstrate.
Oakland and the World Enterprises is a non-profit organization helping the formerly incarcerated and “others facing extreme barriers to employment” reach financial stability and independence through urban farming. In an agreement with the city of Oakland, the organization developed a parcel of unused land into an urban farm. This farm produces fruits and vegetables that are sold through for-profit businesses run cooperatively by the participants in the financial independence development program. Beyond the business of local farming, these cooperatively-owned, for-profit businesses are planned to expand into the retail, housing, and restaurant industries – all benefitting the participants and helping to revolutionize the recently-degraded community. The nonprofit’s effectiveness at bringing ex-cons back up to speed for success in our modern economy is impressive, and the plans to expand the operation could bring economic life and social stability back into some of the poorest neighborhoods of West Oakland. How wonderful does this sound?! An initiative for sustainable food endorsement intertwined with a project to improve the viability of a local economy in which hundreds of “unemployables” reside: perfect.
Next we have “The Garden Project” in San Francisco: a prisoner rehabilitation and at-risk teen crime prevention program centered on horticulture and organic produce production. In a landscaping contract with the city of San Francisco, ex-inmates and teenagers plant trees (over 10,000 of them so far, at least) and grow food for community consumption, activities which both support a source of income for participants. With an impressive retention rate – participants in the Garden Project are 25% less likely to return to jail – the program boasts another example of a sustainability initiative that focuses on economic vibrancy and social stability.
In Fort Collins, residents of an intensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation program find independence, empowerment, and therapy in the operation of the Larimer County Community Corrections Center garden. Volunteering in the garden is an optional activity during the residents’ 90-day stay at the rehabilitation facility, which serves as a halfway point for many inmates leaving prison. Those who volunteer have the opportunity to learn intrapersonal communication skills when selling vegetables at a roadside vegetable stand, responsibility for caring for sections of the garden, and the fundamentals of urban gardening. Altogether, it has proven to be a useful and enjoyable activity to balance the skills and experience of the participants graduating from the program.
My point is that gardens are multi-faceted tools of sustainable development. Since gentrified communities have lost their economic viability and lawful balance, community gardens might hold the key to bringing back peace through food security, income provisions, and overall morale improvement. Growing our own citrus and zucchini in the backyard is a wonderful personal initiative to take the sustainability of communities to the next level, but it remains the narrow approach to exploring the wonderful benefits of community urban gardening. By using the development of a tactical and practical skill such as growing food (which will always be in demand), urban farms offer the opportunity to conquer many challenges at once and revolutionize the status quo of low-income, high-poverty, low-literacy and high-crime communities. Across the board, urban farms are small-scale food production systems with large-scale and life-long positive impacts.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.