Inmate gardeners at Rikers Island grow vegetable crops that feed the city

Inmates carry a crate of produce from the garden on Rikers Island, where a large portion of the vegetable crops are donated to City Harvest.
Source: NYDaily
On a bright September morning, a late summer harvest is underway in a robust garden populated by vibrantly shaded bell peppers, tomatoes, oversized zucchini and spaghetti squash. But high barbed wire fences snake through and around these fertile fields, the low, grim buildings are nearly windowless, and the men tending to the crops wear white and orange jumpsuits.

At Rikers Island, where 14,000 inmates live, the planting gets underway in the spring and cycles through the summer into the fall. The gardens yield an impressive assortment of fresh produce, most of which is donated to City Harvest. In fact, this year the agency trucked away 18,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, all of which will be go to soup kitchens and food pantries.

“Getting fresh food that’s just pulled from the ground is very hard,” says Jennifer McClean, vice president of operations for City Harvest. “It’s rare and a real treat for us.”

The program at the jail, officially known as the farm and horticulture program, is directed by Carrolle Banfield. She’s in charge of securing the plots of land, taking patches wherever she can find them. She then arranges for the soil to be turned over with a tractor, and supervises the inmates as they work. At any given time, about 15 inmates who are considered low-risk work in the program. The compost, Banfield notes, is made from recyclable garbage at Rikers, and no artificial pesticides are used.

And the vegetables that City Harvest trucks pick up each week delight the New Yorkers who come pick them up from food pantries. “Take the zucchini,” Banfield says, pointing to a lush crop. “Zucchini grows extremely fast but it’s very tender. These can be stuffed, or grilled. Some people make them into zucchini bread.”

They inmates who garden have blossomed in much the same way as the squash, basil and zucchini that they water and weed.

Jeffrey Anderson, who says he’s eagerly awaiting the watermelon harvest, loves the herbs because the smell reminds him of his grandfather’s farm down south.

“Gardening has a tranquil effect on me and gives me comfort and peace,” Anderson says. “It helps me stay focused on what I need to think about. I consider it medicine for the mind.”

Andrew Haigler, a father of three who says he was an auto technician before he began serving a sentence at Rikers (he’ll be released in January), was busy loading pounds of vegetables into the City Harvest truck as he talked.

“This year, we were able to plant cabbage and broccoli and then we turned over the field and got tomatoes and cucumbers,” he says. “To actually see these growing is pretty powerful. I didn’t know that a green pepper turned from orange to red. I thought they were completely different vegetables.”

This year, the inmates’ gardening work translated into 18,000 pounds of fresh vegetables that City Harvest transported to the needy.

Banfield says that this year the gardening program, which she began directing in 2001, recruited teenaged inmates to work in the herb garden. She hopes that next year, more of the 16 to 18-year-olds will become involved in the program.

“It’s a cycle,” she says. “It just keeps going around. You see those vegetables getting put on a truck? By 7 p.m. tonight some children in the city will be eating frsh vegetables.”

Haigler says he plans to continue gardening when he gets out of jail. “I can afford a couple of packages of seeds,” he says. “I’d like to garden with my kids. I look at it this way. Sure, I’ve done a little time, but look at what I’ve done with that time.”

As for Anderson, harvesting fresh vegetables that will go to feed the city’s poor and hungry is a way to do something nice for others.

“It helps me to give something back to someone in need,” he says. “And to know that at the end of the day, I’ve helped someone.”

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