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October 2, 2009

Salt Lake County Jail Horticulture Program

Last month I posted an article about the Green Job Training programs that the Washington State Prison system has been running. I was very excited to hear about the program, and after posting it reader Justin quickly pointed out that we have a similar program here in Salt Lake. I hadn't heard of it before, but I have since been looking into it.

The Salt Lake County Jail Horticulture Program is directed by Maggie Shao, who is an assistant professor of horticulture for Utah State University Extension. (She is also an enthusiastic member of USEE's PLT steering committee.) The program's purpose is to use gardening as a tool "sow the seeds of change in troubled men in the jail system. They learn the economics of gardening as well as nutrition."

The inmates sell the produce that they grow in the gardens at the Salt Lake City Farmer's market every Saturday. Last year they made $20,000 in vegetable sales and donated several hundred pounds of garden produce to local homeless shelters. Channel 2 news ran a story about the program, which you can watch here. The rest of the story text is below.

For years, Check Your Health has encouraged Utahns to “eat healthy and be active”. And there is no better way to do that than through growing your own fresh fruits and vegetables. But these days, the Salt Lake County Jail is using gardening as a way to sow the seeds of change in troubled young men.

“This is a golden opportunity. I can say that for pretty much all of us out here.” Tony Walker, and inmate at the Salt Lake County Jail, is talking about the three-acre garden at the Salt Lake County Jail, where he and several other prisoners grow chemical-free tomatoes, melons, berries, pumpkins, herbs, and more. The garden is one of the education programs offered at the jail and is a collaboration among the county and the Utah State University Extension program.

Horticulture Professor Maggie Shao is their instructor. She teaches these new gardeners the economics of gardening, as well as nutrition. “Today I asked all the guys to do an oral presentation on one of the vegetables we grow here in the garden. As part of that presentation, they talk about the nutritional value, about the amounts of calcium and vitamins and antioxidants in some of the vegetables.”

Tony says learning about nutrition and tasting all the different vegetables has been an inspiration. He dreams of becoming a chef. “It's going to help me a lot. I'll know a lot more about the vegetables I'm using to cook with, I know how to grow them and that's going to save me money.”

Working in the garden has been an opportunity to learn a life skill for Torese Mosely. “When I get out and get back to Louisiana, hopefully I will be able to learn a lot and take the class back with me and hopefully able to say ‘hey kids, come on out let's grow a garden!’ And I'm really excited about that because I'll actually know what I'm talking about.”

For Sgt. Cathy Romero, watching these inmates grow and develop into responsible citizens is the greatest reward of all.

“This is a very rewarding, giving back type of program,” says Sgt. Romero. “I couldn't be more proud. I've been here over a year and a half and I was sold in my first week - seeing how this program works, why it works, what it can do, talking with these prisoners, and seeing them outside in society.”

Romero says one of the main reasons they started the program is to get away from just 'warehousing' prisoners - to give them an opportunity to learn a trade, and reintegrate into society in a positive fashion. One test of their social skills includes going to the Pioneer Park Farmer's Market on Saturdays, where their fruits and vegetables have developed a following among the locals.

“We donate a lot of this food,” says Sgt. Romero. “Last year we sold at the Farmer's Market almost $20,000 worth of produce and we donated several hundred pounds, as well, to the homeless shelters. This is giving back to the public.”

A good bargain for taxpayers, says Maggie. “There are studies that show that when you invest a dollar in an educational program you get back about $1.60 because they benefit from the program, they are less likely to come back to jail, and they become employed, which just adds to the economy because by being employed you are much more of a benefit than being in jail.”

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