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GCC food and farming courses open doors for jail inmates

  • One of the gardens outside the perimeter of Franklin County House of Correction is part of an initiative with Greenfield Community College to get inmates outdoors learning about growing food , nutrition and skills they can use after release. —Submitted photo



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Something’s growing in the Franklin County jail, and the seven students who gathered to talk about it recently sounded off proudly, even under the careful watch of guards in the medium-security facility.

Aided by computer-generated as well as handmade charts, three groups of House of Correction inmates and jail detainees presented final projects representing not just future dreams but lessons learned in the twice-weekly classes over two months about nutritious food and social justice.

“A couple of things ... I knew, but wasn’t really informed about how bad the situation was,” said Dwight Balou, a detainee in red jail garb awaiting trial on drug charges. “I knew that where I came from, the Bronx, that high blood pressure and diabetes ran rampant in my neighborhood, but I didn’t know why.”

The “Introduction to Food Systems” course, for which he and the other six men had earned three credits through Greenfield Community College, “gave me information about why these things were happening, why people were sick,” Balou said. “And what you could do to fix that problem. The information has enlightened me” to pursue a dream of writing about social justice.

The project that he and fellow jail detainee Colin York presented, “Food for People,” aims to set up a hub of community organizations in the Bronx, including the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, NAACP and Latino Commerce of the Bronx as well as a network of farms outside the city, with the two men coordinating the collection and distribution of nutritious food at affordable prices in neighborhoods where there are few choices.

“Our mission is to motivate community-based organizations to provide high-quality foods for inner-city families at an affordable price, simultaneously offering small-farm access at a scale not previously available, by educating these organizations and motivating them to reach out to people,” the men said in describing their project. “We connect the farms to the organizations, which connect to the people.”

Another project, based on Greenfield’s Stone Soup Cafe pay-what-you-can model that draws on volunteers as well as produce from Just Roots Farm, envisions a truck to deliver organic produce to Springfield apartment complexes and neighborhoods.

In addition to “reducing the number of kids who go to bed hungry,” explained inmates Darnell Turner and Tristen Pearson, the project could strengthen community ties and improve the health of low-income residents. Turner said he has “two little children” he wants to help teach about the importance of good nutrition.

A third project aims to update the jail’s food procurement by buying and offering more local produce — and thereby also reducing food waste and long-distance transporting of food.

Course instructor Abrah Dresdale said that because House of Correction sentences are generally under 2½ years, “having them participate in academic courses as well as vocational training in food and farm systems prepares them for re-entry that’s not so far off.” She said there is already support from Sheriff Christopher Donelan for the jail to procure more local, whole foods, which has begun with potatoes and butternut squash and is continuing with conversations over frozen vegetables from the Greenfield Food Processing Center.

Jeff Sparks, who presented the project along with teammates Diego Rivera and Elvin Gonzalez, said that in addition to reducing diabetes and obesity among the jail’s population, serving more nutritious food could help reduce levels of anxiety and violence.

Gonzalez, who had taken a GCC class on nutrition in the jail, where he said he was awaiting charges stemming from a high-speed chase, said, “I learned a lot about everything that’s in food – good food, bad food. My mom had high blood pressure and a lot of other health problems. I learned what to do for her to eat healthier, and even for myself.”

Rivera cited a 2011 study at Vermont’s Northeast Correctional Complex, pointing to an increase in local produce in inmates’ diets being tied to fewer violent incidents. Fellow team members pointed to the benefits of another one of the project’s goals: reducing food waste at the jail by setting up a composting program as well as by serving fresher, locally grown foods.

Dresdale developed the project-based course for GCC in 2011 and has been teaching it as one of four or five Food and Farm Systems classes offered for the third time at the jail. She commended the students for overcoming public speaking and writing challenges as they’ve become passionate about improving the food system for themselves, their families and home communities — along with the possibility of continuing in college.

She said support is available from business development organizations and case workers who can help released inmates find temporary work in at the Greenfield Food Processing Center and on area farms. Plus, community organizations can help turn inmates’ projects into a reality. At the jail, there are sustainability, cooking and nutrition classes this winter, as well as the chance for some inmates to work in a new greenhouse and, with warmer weather ahead, in one of the jail’s gardens.

Donelan, at a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, said, “This is the most wonderful collaboration in the commonwealth between a house of correction and a community college where incarcerated men can leave with college credits and then make the very easy transition to become college students, because I don’t want my men to be comfortable in a jail. I want them comfortable in a classroom.”

Ideas in action

An open letter read out loud from “Yarrow,” who had been skeptical about what he was learning in the course, helps put the lessons in perspective:

“Just up the street, a five-minute walk, is a farm … with a nice farm store, fresh veggies, fresh fruits, eggs, etc., open 7 days, 7 to 7, and yes, I was able to use my SNAP, my EBT card benefits, and for every dollar I spent I got a dollar back, so I can spend up to $40 a month. … I was truly impressed. Also if you want, you can donate money to the small farm and join the CSA. It was very cool talking to the farmer about the class in the jail. … I just wanted to share this with you ‘cause sometimes these ideas may sound off the wall or utopian, but once you see it at work, it is different.”

Balou said afterward, “This program definitely gives direction, and it has inspired me to take some time and think, as an individual, what my actions are and to reconsider whatever direction I was going into. The passion that (Dresdale) gives inspires me to do the same thing.”