[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Inmates Grow, Gather Veggies, to Feed the Hungry

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Wed Aug 26 13:27:14 EDT 2009

Inmates grow, gather veggies, to feed the hungry
By JULIE CARR SMYTH, AP Statehouse Correspondent Julie Carr Smyth, Ap 
Statehouse Correspondent - Tue Aug 18, 4:40 pm ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The nation's food banks, struggling to meet demand in hard 
times, are turning to prison inmates for free labor to help feed the hungry.
Several states are sending inmates into already harvested fields to scavenge 
millions of pounds of leftover potatoes, berries and other crops that 
otherwise would go to waste. Others are using prisoners to plant and harvest 

"We're in a situation where, without their help, the food banks absolutely 
could not accomplish all that they do," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for 
Feeding America, a national association of food banks.

The number of Americans who couldn't afford food jumped 30 percent from 
December 2007 to December 2008, according to a survey by the group. Demand 
at some pantries has more than doubled, Fraser said, as job losses and wage 
cuts have strained family budgets.

State governments, with their own historic revenue shortfalls, can't keep 
pace with the need. Many have cut budgets of social service agencies, 
including those that provide food assistance to the poor.

Ohio and Michigan are among states that have expanded inmate farming 
projects specifically to feed the hungry.
Texas and Arkansas plan to enhance their food bank work-training programs, 
which provide labor and help make offenders employable when they're 
released. Food banks use inmates to sort, clean, shelve and cook food.

A 23 percent increase in food demand in Arkansas prompted Gov. Mike Beebe to 
allow inmates to gather otherwise wasted crops for food banks, said Phyllis 
Haynes, executive director of the Arkansas Food Bank Network.

Outside the Faith Mission in downtown Columbus, Ohio, Catherina Moore, 26 
and homeless, said she's concerned that criminals might tamper with soup 
kitchen food. But she supports the practice of teaching farming skills to 

"There's nothing wrong with teaching a man to grow food," she said. "A 
person can use those skills to survive. I think they deserve that training."
Most of the prisoners who work in food bank programs are nonviolent, 
short-term offenders convicted of such crimes as drug possession or theft, 
prison and food bank officials said.

"Prisons are full of people who have taken all their lives, and this is 
giving them an opportunity to give back," said Ernie Moore, assistant 
director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, whose 
farming program begins with donated seeds and fertilizer from the state food 
bank network.
Alison Lawrence, a policy specialist at the nonpartisan National Conference 
of State Legislatures, said states battling high unemployment have found 
little downside to using inmates to fill food banks' mostly volunteer jobs.

"The underlying economic factor you have to weigh as a state with inmate 
labor is whether they're taking jobs from free, able-bodied people," she 
In some areas, established inmate farm programs, seen as uneconomical or not 
relevant, are being eliminated.

New York plans to cut its state prison farm program later this year because 
the rural farming skills it teaches are viewed as impractical to prisoners 
returning primarily to urban settings.

In Arizona last year, food banks barely managed to save a program that uses 
inmate labor in Maricopa County.

Ginny Hildebrand, president and chief executive of the Association of 
Arizona Food Banks, said the state initially said it was too costly to 
employ enough guards to prevent inmate escapes. But the food banks argued 
that axing the program would mean the loss of millions of pounds of produce 
gathered by inmates at a time when demand had jumped 43 percent.

Eric Cooper, executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank, said inmates 
in the Texas Second Chance program can learn skills used at the warehouse 
where donated food is stored, such as forklift operation, inventory and 
sanitation. Or they can enroll in the food bank's culinary school, cooking 
for soup kitchens and learning food safety and the tools of the hospitality 

"It's an incredible win for them, the students, to be able to come out of 
prison each day and work a full day with us, to get a great meal there at 
the food bank, and to learn skills that will translate into good-paying 
jobs," Cooper said. "Meanwhile, the food bank gets a great source of labor."
Participating in Second Chance was a game changer for Peter Worthen. At 28, 
he's now out of prison and working as inventory coordinator at Cooper's food 

"Rather than being with all the drama inside the unit all day, it was an 
advantage to get out and do something different, to work around people, and 
learn new skills," said Worthen, who served 23 months for marijuana 

"Since you're working for free regardless, it just felt better that somebody 
was being helped out by what you did." 

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