The Food Growing Program started 5 or 6 years ago when the county jail donated ½ an acre of land to the Food Bank for Westchester (NY) as a vocational training garden. A few years later, they acquired another ¼ acre at a school for disadvantaged youth in Yonkers.
The focus then was mainly on education and training, explained Doug DeCandia who became the Food Growing Program coordinator three years ago, when the food bank decided that they wanted to increase production.
At that point, the program expanded production in Yonkers to a little over ⅓ of an acre and started a garden at a juvenile correctional facility in Valhalla, about 20 minutes north of New York City. Another two ½ acre plots were made available. One at the Hartsdale School for the Deaf, and another owned by the Westchester Land Trust in Bedford Hills.
In all the program has 5 market garden plots, about 3 acres in all. With Doug at the helm and production as the focus, the program grew about 40,000 servings of food for the food bank last season. All of the farmwork is done by volunteers, students and inmates at the various locations.
There is no curriculum, but students learn through engaging in the farmwork. “The education comes along when the inmates or children are participating in day to day activities on the farm,” Doug said about the benefits for the food growers. Inmates and volunteers are also allowed to take as much produce as they like, a fresh benefit for the incarcerated. The prisons and schools can not take the food because of contracts with commercial vendors.
Doug’s unique situation has allowed him access to 3 acres of farm-able land, and also a chance to work with a variety of different populations.
“As a farmer: This, for me. This is what I want to do,” he asserted. “I thought about buying my own land, but I’ve found this to be much more fulfilling.” He lists some of the benefits of his situation as addressing social factors like hunger and poverty, educating the public, and having a secure job with a salary and benefits.
“There is a lot of need and a lot of resources. It can be replicated. There are different ways to make a living farming.”