Editorial: Jail program creates appetite for learning

  • One of the gardens outside the Franklin County House of Correction is part of an initiative with Greenfield Community College to get inmates outdoors learning about growing food, nutrition and skills they can use after release. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Imagine a business that connects farmers hungry for new customers with low-income Bronx residents who don’t have easy access to fresh, nutritious food.

Or a similar link between Pioneer Valley farms and low-income neighborhoods in Springfield, providing wholesome food that has been shown to help with nutrition-related ailments such as diabetes and obesity, too common in poorer urban areas.

These ideas have sprung from a twice-weekly, two-month nutrition and social justice course taught by Greenfield Community College at the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction.

The plans themselves, if they come to pass, will be a boon for all involved. But the lessons from which these projects arose are in themselves of great value for the seven inmates who took the course.

Among them was Dwight Balou, who worked on the Bronx plan. He says that high blood pressure and diabetes are rampant in his former Bronx neighborhood, “but I didn’t know why.”

The “Introduction to Food Systems” course, for which he and the other six men earned college credit, gave him information about why these things were happening. “The information has enlightened me,” Balou says.

The project that Balou and fellow inmate Colin York presented, “Food for People,” aims to set up a hub of community organizations in the Bronx, including the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, NAACP and Latino Commerce of the Bronx, and a network of farms outside the city. The two men would coordinate the collection and distribution of nutritious food at affordable prices in neighborhoods where there are few choices.

“We connect the farms to the organizations, which connect to the people,” Balou explains.

Another project, based on Greenfield’s Stone Soup Cafe’s pay-what-you-can model that draws on volunteers as well as produce from Just Roots Farm, envisions a truck to deliver organic produce to Springfield apartment complexes and neighborhoods.

In addition to “reducing the number of kids who go to bed hungry,” explain inmates Darnell Turner and Tristen Pearson, the project could strengthen community ties and improve the health of low-income residents. Turner says he has “two little children” he wants to help teach about the importance of good nutrition.

A third project aims to update the jail’s food procurement by buying and offering more local produce — and thereby reducing food waste and long-distance transportation of food.

Course instructor Abrah Dresdale said there is already support from Sheriff Christopher Donelan for the jail to procure more local, whole foods, which has begun with potatoes and butternut squash and is continuing with conversations over frozen vegetables from the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield.

Jeff Sparks, who presented the project along with teammates Diego Rivera and Elvin Gonzalez, said that in addition to reducing diabetes and obesity among the jail’s population, serving more nutritious food could help reduce levels of anxiety and violence.

Dresdale developed the project-based course for GCC in 2011 and has been teaching it as one of four or five food and farm systems classes offered at the jail. She commends the students for overcoming public speaking and writing challenges as they have become passionate about improving the food system for themselves, their families and home communities — along with the possibility of continuing in college.

Donelan told a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce gathering recently, “This is the most wonderful collaboration in the commonwealth between a house of correction and a community college, where incarcerated men can leave with college credits and then make the very easy transition to become college students.”

Once again, we commend Donelan and his staff and Greenfield Community College for making the effort to teach new subjects to more people in new ways. We hope more community colleges and county jails collaborate this way or will soon.