How a jail and the Department of Ag are feeding the hungry, keeping inmates busy

One of the things I’ve learned blogging is that our government needs some kind of “connect the dots” mechanism — maybe a legislative committee or a regular government position.

For example, I’m getting a much closer look at some of the people and programs who have been on the forefront of addressing some of our state’s greatest challenges. Our state is blessed with an abundance of innovative doers determined to make change. Laura Pineo, director of nutrition at SAD 54, comes to mind. She studied and planned for 10 years to find a way to better serve hungry children in her district before the right opportunity opened up through a new federal program.

Because of her preparation, when the opportunity came, she was poised and ready to go — ducks and fellow district staff members all in a row. Students in her district are reported to be performing better since the program was instituted. When I interviewed her she said that since participation in school meals had increased under the new program, principals were telling her that trips to the nurses’ offices for sickness and principals’ offices for behavior problems had decreased.

Interviewing Pineo opened my eyes to the tremendous network addressing hunger in Maine. Like I knew that the Good Shepherd Food Bank had grown into a major distributor of food and is at the heart of that network, but I didn’t know that Kennebec’s Restorative Harvest Program at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility contributed produce to school programs like the one at SAD 54. I also didn’t know that inmates who work in the garden program also help staff at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry distribute food to the various federal and state hunger programs handled there.

Maine Department of Agriculture building, Cony Rd. Augusta  (Photo by Trish Callahan)

Maine Department of Agriculture building, Cony Road, Augusta (Photo by Trish Callahan)

I learned about that aspect of the network from Jason Hall at the department. I learned about Hall from current Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon during an email exchange. The program itself is the brainchild of former sheriff and current Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty.

Hall and one other colleague handle the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), or as he describes it “that government cheese program,” except it’s about so much more than cheese now. They also oversee state hunger programs, including one that focuses on supplying fresh produce to low-income seniors through agencies around the state.

He described the partnership with Kennebec County as developing quite organically. The jail gardens are behind the department building, where they were also growing produce for their programs. Eventually the “why don’t we work together” idea became obvious.

Hall and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office connected two dots. TEFAP and their partners at KCCF distributed 57,400 pounds of fresh produce in 2015. More than 13,000 pounds of potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers came directly from the inmates’ garden.

Equipment and fields awaiting spring.  (Photo by Trish Callahan)

Equipment and fields behind the agriculture building awaiting spring. (Photo by Trish Callahan)

There would have been squash as well, but Hall reported that the local deer loved it, leaving none for the humans! The produce that survived went to food banks and pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other organizations all over the state. Besides tending the gardens, participating inmates assist with loading and unloading trucks at the Dept. of Agriculture building, which serves as a distribution hub collecting and sending out food, to and from a variety of sources.

Hall described the operation as a food “free for all.” Nothing — no food nor one inch of space on a truck — gets wasted.  He said if there’s a truck headed for the county to deliver food for a given program, and there’s another program that needs to get something up that way, they piggy-back the deliveries.

The distribution area behind the Dept. of Agriculture building.  (Photo by Trish Callahan)

The distribution area behind the Dept. of Agriculture building. (Photo by Trish Callahan)

So if these things are growing and working already, why connect more dots through government?

Because innovators are always thinking beyond where they are. Once experiencing success with their ideas, they are ready to develop them more. In his emails, Reardon said he was already looking to grow and improve the wonderful programming he has inherited from his mentor, Liberty. Hall, too, had ways he wanted to see these programs and the food network grow.

One of the challenges they face is that inmates who have achieved the level of privilege necessary to work offsite are often at the end of their sentences. Hall spoke highly of their work and work ethic while participating in his programs, but their tenure is short, so there is considerable turnover. One possible source for longer-term workers or volunteers might be to offer some kind of agricultural certification program that includes interning at the gardens. However, accessing potential students and a certified education program is a challenging dot for Hall to try to connect to.

After talking to Hall on the phone, my thoughts wandered. As a former adult education teacher, my immediate thoughts were for a partnership with that state organization. As a former professional working in fields governed by bureaucracy, my next thoughts were, easier said than done!

Then my thoughts went to all the folks leaving incarceration who struggle with employment after serving their sentences, especially those convicted of drug-related crimes and the fact that a colleague told me there are other restorative garden programs around the state. It’s too bad someone couldn’t connect the dots and find a funding mechanism to hire folks leaving jail to work in these gardens, maybe even earning academic certification.

Vocational rehabilitation, fighting hunger, growing Maine’s food sector all at once. It could be like Maine’s version of Homeboy Industries, a rehabilitative program for former gang members in California.

That would be cool, but cool things can’t happen quickly without government support, without some mechanism to enable innovators to connect the dots in ways that support networks that can solve our most challenging problems.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.