Inmates Donate Food

Inmates show off their garden produce at the Southeast Correctional Center. Photo by Southeast Correctional Center

When you have nothing but time, you need a way to fill it. And if you find something of value that benefits others, it is indeed a win-win.

That’s how Southeast Correctional Center and Southeast Missouri Food Bank staff would describe their cooperative program with inmates growing vegetables that are distributed to hungry families through the food bank’s network of 139 food pantries, soup kitchens and domestic violence shelters.

The correctional center, located in Charleston, houses about 1,700 inmates. The 15 to 20 of them who participate in the garden program say there’s something satisfying – cathartic almost – about putting a seed in the dirt, nurturing it into a plant and harvesting the vegetables to benefit others.

 “Knowing you’re doing something that’s giving back, that’s the best thing about this,” inmate Steven Green said of the program, which generates a few thousand pounds of vegetables each year.

Green and inmate Peter Noll are crew leaders for the program and set the schedule for planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. Some vegetables are planted as seeds; others were started as indoor seedlings in March.

Noll has been helping with the garden “since day one” and is proud of what he and the other inmates have accomplished.

“There’s some days I’m out here by myself at 7 a.m., and I don’t quit until 8 that night. … I keep a folder on what we plant and what we weed and what we harvest.”

This year’s vegetables include tomatoes, green beans, wax beans, onions, mustard greens, leaf lettuce, okra, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, green peppers, banana peppers, peas, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, honey dew and even some lemon basil. The current garden is about an acre, but inmates and prison officials have talked about expanding it to another nearby five-acre plot.

Prison officials and the inmates have been creative in how the garden is structured. Wood scraps from the woodworking program are used as stakes. Old bed sheets are torn into strips to tie up plants or to make a line for vining plants like sweet peas and okra. One inmate made fabric birds that are mounted on wooden stakes in hopes they’ll scare away other birds that might eat the seeds or vegetable buds.

Not all the inmates are garden savvy when they start. Bernard Rhymes was one of them.

“When I first come out here, I had no knowledge of any of this. … It relieves a lot of stress. I’m thankful to be doing something that you know helps other people that need it.”

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