Caring for the Community with Coastal Harvest

Text and photos by Amanda Mintz unless otherwise noted.

If you have never seen Stafford Creek Corrections Center, you might be surprised; among the fences and gray buildings are one and a half acres of flower and vegetable gardens. This includes several very large plots, many ornamental plantings, and a plot for every living unit. Inmates tend the gardens daily among the bees and butterflies; they experiment with novel gardening techniques, and carefully hand-water the plants.

A unit garden at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photograph by Kelly Peterson.

The incarcerated gardeners take a monthly class called Seed to Supper, co-lead by SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers and SCCC’s Grounds and Nursery Supervisor Ed Baldwin (Ed is also the Prairie Conservation Nursery Liaison). Seed to Supper lasts nine sessions, during which participants learn how to grow and harvest produce in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Baldwin decides what to grow, sometimes choosing unusual vegetables new to the gardeners. In class, the gardeners are encouraged to share their strategies and successes with one another to improve their skills collectively. Each class concludes with Mr. Baldwin announcing the weekly haul for each living unit—usually several hundred pounds per garden. Last year, SCCC produced 11,000 pounds of food. This year they have already broken that record, and will harvest over 19,000 pounds of produce by the end of this month!

This hoop house was donated by SPP’s conservation nursery for growing food, and according to Ed Baldwin, it has increased production of heat and sun loving vegetables that are difficult to grow in the cooler coastal climate of SCCC.

 

Conservation Nursery Technicians Shabazz Malekk and Aaron Bander strike a pose in the hoop house.

 

SPP’s Conservation Nursery Technicians maintain the HUB gardens, where they use experimental techniques for natural pest suppression and increasing plant growth.

Most garden seed comes from Harvest Now, an organization that works with correctional facilities nationwide to grow-to-donate and provide fresh food for their own cafeterias. At SCCC, most of the produce is donated to Coastal Harvest, a non-profit organization serving food banks and pantries in a seven-county area of Southwestern Washington. Ed Baldwin was responsible for initiating the partnership; he visited Coastal Harvest and invited them to come tour the gardens at SCCC. According to Coastal Harvest staff, the response to the partnership from the community is very positive; SCCC is their only regular weekly contributor of fresh produce, and they are grateful for it.

I asked some of SPP’s Conservation Nursery Technicians, who also tend the HUB gardens and greenhouse, and Mr. Baldwin how they feel about donating most of the food they grow.

Technician Dale King said that, before he came to Stafford Creek, his life was all about himself; he never did anything for anyone else.  Now he feels good about the opportunity to do something for others in need.

Conservation Nursery Technicians Dale King and Daniel Travatte are proud to provide food for Coastal Harvest.

 

In addition to experimenting with growing techniques, the garden crew re-purposes as many items as possible, such as using plastic bags and buckets to grow tomatoes and eggplants.

The other technicians agreed; because they have their basic needs addressed, their work has become a labor of love; the gratitude from the community is more important to them than eating the food themselves. The community served by Coastal Harvest is their community too, and it cultivates a sense of pride to be able to give back. They brought up the idea that it takes one to one-and-a-half acres to feed one person for a year. There are almost 2000 people at SCCC, and not even two acres of gardens; Ed Baldwin and the technicians agreed that what they grow would be only a drop in the bucket at the prison.

Starting in July, they figured out how to send some produce to the inmate kitchen; kitchen staff come out every Monday to look through the harvest and take what they can use to supplement inmate meals for the week, usually salad greens and herbs. Many of the prison-grown pumpkins will be contributed to SCCC’s monthly Family Fun Night in October, where inmates and their families will paint them for Halloween.

More than anything else, the Conservation Nursery Technicians at SCCC expressed that they appreciate the learning experience created by the partnership with Coastal Harvest. They have experimented with unusual fruit and vegetable varieties and adjusted their production based on feedback about the most popular items at the food banks and pantries. Mr. Baldwin thinks that at this point, each participating gardener could easily start his own business. Technician Daniel Travatte even went as far as saying he would pay to do this work!

 

Conservation Nursery Technicians Kelly Lund and Stanley Feliciano cool off inside the squash trellis.

 

Many plants begin their lives in the greenhouse and move into the gardens as they mature.

 

Although less popular at the food banks, Coastal Harvest uses unusual or unknown vegetable varieties at their pantries, where they prepare and give away meals.

 

This gorgeous garlic is nearly ready for harvest.

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