This is supposed to be a New York City-oriented environmental column, but of course, my attention often strays a bit further afield. Having married a Canadian, and envying (yes, ENVYING) their health care system, educational system, and numerous other aspects of their generally measured and fair society (veggie dogs widely available on the streets of Toronto, yo!), I was dismayed to hear that the Canadian government is considering discontinuing another, smaller initiative.
In what appears to be a short-sighted attempt to close a budget gap, the Canucks are looking to shut down their 100-plus-year-old prison farming program. Why, precisely, should I, or any New Yorker give a damn about the farming prospects of a bunch of Canadian convicts?
Food news abounds these days, and little of it is good. The North American diet is in freefall, quality-wise, and health problems like obesity and diabetes are ascendant. The majority of us have lost touch with where are food comes from, and industrialized agriculture is having devastating effects on the environment. From Food Inc. to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, the prescription for our very survival may involve a rejection of the industrial food system, and a return to eating “real,” locally grown produce.
Urban farms have moved into the spotlight, proving their value by feeding, and educating, thousands. Will Allen, the powerhouse behind the Milwaukee-based urban farm organization Growing Power, was awarded a MacArthur genius grant last year. The movement of young people back to farming has been noted in The New York Times, and in projects like The Greenhorns. In other words, small-scale agriculture is taking its place at the table (literally, and figuratively) again.
So why would you take farming opportunities away from the incarcerated? And take fresh produce off the tables in prisons, and out of the food banks to which the prison farms contribute? Well, the land they farm is worth money, and some think the government wants to sell so they can use the cash elsewhere. Never mind the money saved by producing food that will have to be bought elsewhere, and the better health, and therefore lower costs, of prisoners getting exercise and fresh air. Ditto for the cost savings from food headed to community food banks. And really never mind the prisoners who enjoy the work they do farming, and their expressed desires to continue farming when they are released from prison.
The Canadian powers that be claim that the skills taught on the farms are behind the times — I guess it’s more important to produce call-center drones than men and women who can grow produce — and that the farms lose money. The establishment of any other training program would cost millions, and probably wouldn’t produce anything of use to the prisons, or community. And with hundreds of people returning to farming, here and in Canada, and many existing farmers reporting labor shortages with the tightening of immigration laws, farming skills ARE in demand.
Here in the United States, prisoners are farming in many states, saving millions on food and waste disposal: green news site Grist.org links to an article about a Nashville prison that saves the state $150,000 a year just by composting its food waste (and then uses that compost in a vegetable garden that produces tons of food for the prisons). And there’s even more that prisoners could do, to help themselves and the environment.
In Virginia, prisoners train homeless dogs from BARK (Barkva.org), preparing them to be perfect house pets. Here in New York, Puppies Behind Bars gets inmates to train future assistance dogs for the disabled and explosives-detection dogs for the police.
Why not let prisoners be at the forefront of environmental action, let them contribute to their own communities and prepare for the future, a future with, I hope, many more small farms, and many more assistance animals? (Senator Al Franken’s first bill proposes service animals for all wounded servicepeople.) Sign the petiton at SaveOurFarms.ca to save Canada’s prison farms, and support meaningful green work for the prisoners closer to home: if we help them, we’re helping us too.