harvest1September 29, 2017 - For several years, inmates and staff from the Westchester County Department of Correction have been teaming up with partners from not-for-profit agencies to help feed the hungry with food grown right at the jail in Valhalla. New this year is the expansion of the ‘farm-to-table’ gardening program to include its first female-specific program, with organic produce grown inside of the secure confines of the women’s unit.

Working in partnership with farmers from the Food Bank for Westchester and staff from Family Services of Westchester’s (FSW’s) EMERGE Program, the female inmates raised a wide variety of organic produce in raised garden beds that were built by staff members inside a recreation area of the correctional complex. The woman’s program is designed for younger female offenders, some of whom are minors (under 18) and many of whom arrive at the jail as a result of drug-related crimes.

Inmate participation in all of the programs is strictly voluntary, and applicants are screened for participation by jail administrators and partner agencies. Produce includes lettuce, cabbage, kale, collard greens, beets, string beans and a variety of herbs and then hand-harvested the vegetables to supplement other inmates’ evening meals.

Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino said the gardening program has been a success on multiple levels. “From a rehabilitative perspective, we believe that it is important for all inmates to participate in positive activities while in jail,” said Astorino. “This program teaches the importance and benefits of hard work. In the case of our younger female population, these women have daily responsibility for the care of their gardens and are learning firsthand how planting a seed in April can feed a hungry person in September.”

For several years, the Department of Correction has partnered with the Food Bank to grow food for hungry residents of Westchester County. In 2016, inmates at the jail’s farm grew over 1,600 pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs, which was used to supplement thousands of meals served by the Food Bank in the county. Under the stewardship of organic farmer Doug DeCandia, the Food Bank maintains farms on five campuses in the county, including at the jail, the Woodfield Cottage juvenile detention facility (Valhalla), the Leake and Watts residential treatment center (Yonkers), the New York School for the Deaf (White Plains), and the Westchester Land Trust (Bedford).

DeCandia was recognized for his work at a Fall Harvest ‘give back’ program at the jail on Friday.

“Having worked with offenders for many years, I have been in close contact with people with a wide range of emotional and behavioral challenges,” DeCandia said. “The opportunity to cultivate soil, to add a little sunshine and water and then feed your neighbor -- in jail or otherwise -- is definitely something that instills a sense of community in all of us.”

Similarly, the jail also partners with FSW, which operates EMERGE, a program designed to help women improve their economic situations after they leave jail by teaching them responsible parenting skills, financial literacy, and employment readiness skills. Janet Donat, program coordinator, said: “The gardening program adds a practical component to an already successful program,” said Janet Donat, EMERGE’s program coordinator. “Participants discover that nurturing another living thing takes patience, perseverance, and a supportive community. By gardening together, participants also learn social skills – cooperation, communication, responsibility, and more – that can help them succeed after they leave jail. The same skills that they use to nurture a plant can be applied to their life beyond bars, ultimately helping them become more connected to their community.” Once participants leave jail, FSW – a not-for-profit social services organization with seven offices throughout Westchester County – helps them reconnect with the community by providing a range of services designed to improve mental health and strengthen families.

harvest2The program is one of many progressive steps that Astorino and the Correction Department have taken in recent years to enhance services for targeted jail populations, including mentally ill inmates and inmates under 18. These initiatives have resulted in significant decreases in serious incidents involving inmates, such as fights and assaults on staff.

“We are constantly looking to improve our operations and collaborate with many different community partners,” said Commissioner of Correction Kevin M. Cheverko. “Reinforcing and rewarding positive behavior by inmates has directly resulted in a safer working environment for our staff members and – as importantly – prepares these inmates for their eventual return to local communities.”