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The Garden Project

While I say I started The Garden Project, I feel like that's not complete. I started it with the help of a lot of people—the prisoners as well as people who have wanted to help. What really is for me the most important part of our project is that we have people who are in need of restoration and they are the ones working very hard to restore themselves and also to restore their neighborhoods, to restore their communities, to restore their families. That's very important to me.

The project has three parts. The first is the program in the jail. Since I started it in 1982 more than 10,000 prisoners have been in the program. Most of the people in our jails and prisons throughout the country are there because they're poor. They're there because they've sold and used drugs. Unfortunately, they're there because they're people of color.

We've grown a lot of food that we've given to soup kitchens and senior centers and community centers. But growing food and giving it to these places is what's helped to restore the prisoners and the participants in the program, because they're able to give something. They're able to give of themselves. Over the years people have asked me, "Why don't we sell the food instead of giving it to the community centers?" You have to give to live. In giving the food they've worked very hard to grow, people begin to care about themselves. They begin to care about other people.

In growing food for the soup kitchens and for the jail, they begin to learn about their bodies. They begin to learn about health. Over the years I've always asked people, when you got arrested what were you eating? Generally they say the same thing. I don't know if you've noticed, but when the poor get money they go to McDonald's. They take their kids there. It's a source of pride. What I'm seeing is more and more people who aren't eating or cooking food at home. Having talked to thousands of prisoners over the years, I have concluded that their diet is why they're using drugs. This is why they're craving crack. They were not eating vegetables. Many of them have never eaten vegetables that didn't come out of a can or weren't frozen. In San Francisco, the only store in the neighborhood where most of the people in our jail live doesn't have fresh vegetables; most of the stuff is pre-packaged. That's what this community of over 58,000 people has available to it.

We're really trying to change that. With the Garden Project, which is the second part of our program, we grow food and try to get it to the community that needs it, where it's grown. Our garden is about half an acre. It's here in Bayview-Hunters Point, a community mostly of African-Americans. There are at least two Superfund sites in Bayview-Hunters Point. When most people there go to shop, they go to the corner store. It's a liquor store. So I think it's the role of our project to offer food to this community, which desperately needs it. We invite people to come to the garden. We invite seniors to come. When the seniors come to pick vegetables, they see the same people who might have been on the corner trying to take their purses, or knock them out and rob them. They see that the same people are now giving back and trying to help. That changes something for them. The prisoners begin to see and feel badly about what they have done to support their habit. The garden does that, growing this food does that.

The garden also offers a place for parents. Most people who are in jail or prison are parents. Instead of leaving their children in the housing projects to come to work, or deciding that they can't come to work because they don't have child care, they bring their children to the garden. The kids run through the garden and pull up everything and, I tell you, this makes it a little difficult, but it's well worth it.

There's a kid that I'm particularly fond of. His name is Paradise. Paradise is Samoan. I will never forget a couple of years ago when his father was supposed to meet me to work really early in the morning at the garden. I was there, sitting in the van, and I heard Paradise crying in his father's car. I immediately thought his father must be hitting him or something, because unfortunately that had happened before. I got out of the van and asked Paradise what was going on. He was crying and crying and crying. His father just threw up his hands and said, "I don't know what's wrong with him." I said, "What's wrong, Paradise, what's wrong?" He said, "I don't want to eat what my father brought." I asked, "What did he bring?" He said, "He brought me donuts. I don't want donuts. My teacher said that's not nutritious. I don't want to eat that." This kid was maybe six years old then. I said, "Well, Paradise, I brought some strawberries and some peaches and some bagels and so let's have them." He grabbed the bag. He was just so happy to have something other than donuts to eat. His father had been a drug user for many years; he's a single parent and over the years it's been a struggle to save Paradise. "Take these greens home and cook them. Feed the kids salad. It's food." That's not his orientation. We're trying to teach people about nutrition, to teach people about health, and not just by lecturing to them, but by showing them. So we grow, make, and eat food in the garden. The prisoners and the former prisoners are learning to eat vegetables and this really offers them a way to feed their families.

The third part of our program is the Tree Corps, which was started as a way to deal with the fact that in Bayview-Hunters Point, and in other places in San Francisco, we have streets with no trees. None. When we plant the trees it makes a difference because the neighbors, the people that live in the community, see people who need jobs. So, the vandalism rate for our trees is actually much lower than for the trees that the City plants. When the trees survive, that tells me that what we're doing works. Also it works because it puts people to work. It's letting Paradise's father and other people bring a check home every week instead of relying on welfare or drug sales to survive.

More than all three of these things, what I'm trying to do is help people to see what's happening in our jails and in our prisons. I'm not alone in this. A lot of people have done this all over the country. As citizens we are allowing our government to spend an amazing amount of money to keep people, mostly people of color, in jail for the crime of being poor. There has to be a time where we say as a community that in order to heal our community we need to involve the people who have hurt the community.

The other day a man that I've known from the jail for the last fifteen or so years came to our office. I hadn't seen him in ten years. I started telling him how the program had changed from the time when we worked in the jail. "So what's up with you? How's your family?" "Well, I don't see my family anymore," he said. "My son died in San Quentin in a gang fight." I remembered his son. I said, "But I haven't seen you in ten years. Where have you been?" He said, "Oh, I've been in and out. I've been to State Prison, back and forth. I'm still not off parole." So, in ten years this man has been on the street probably a total of three months and then he's back. James' crime is being addicted to crack. That's his crime. I'm not a mathematician, but it seems like a lot of money to send James back and forth to State Prison for ten years. We're talking $25,000 or more each year, when you calculate what being in jail does to the family that's involved. There's no one bringing any money home. Most of the children I know whose parents have been to jail end up in jail themselves. The cycle just continues.

This cycle is spinning out of control and bringing more and more communities into it while we pay for it. At some point we have to say this doesn't make sense, and stop it. At some point we have to look at the fact that there are children who aren't eating in America. They're not eating food. They're eating garbage. These same children are going to grow up, and when they grow up I'll bet you many of them will follow the path of their parents. They'll be addicted to drugs.

In California we spend more on prisons than we do on our schools. That is criminal. We're wasting our money, we're wasting our energy, and we're misdirected when we think that the problem of crime is the problem of people of color going awry. That's not what's happening. What's happening is that the young men and young women in our jails and prisons are there mostly because they're addicts and because they're poor. And if we can't do anything about that, then we won't restore the earth. We need to restore the people first.