Vegetables aren’t the only things that can grow in a garden.
If you’re a longtime Edible reader, you already know we root for local food because it benefits everything from our economy to our drinking water, and also because the flavor of a sun-ripened tomato picked upstate yesterday can never be matched by a tomato picked green a week ago in another time zone.
But I hadn’t realized how a tomato plant can also rehabilitate inmates and reduce crime.
That’s the verdict in our cover story about a remarkable garden project on Rikers Island. The prison complex in the East River is home to 11,000 people serving sentences for nonviolent crimes such as drug possession, petty theft, prostitution and disorderly conduct. While doing time, some get their hands in the dirt at GreenHouse, a project that combines vocational training and horticultural therapy, teaching everything from soil science to pest control, seed starts to pumpkin harvests. Criminal justice experts say prison gardens like these are powerfully positive, reducing anxiety, drug use and depression while fostering judgment and nourishing mental health. (Not to mention conferring jobs skills—check out the Food Justice Food Truck launching this fall to offer inmates employment opportunities after release from Rikers.)
A woman named Jenny Rodriguez could have told me how gardens can heal both places and people. When she moved in across from Riverside Park 49 years ago, it was part garbage dump, part junkie hangout, and the ill effects spilled out into the community, eventually claiming two of her children. But Jenny found that pulling weeds and planting seeds was therapeutic, and the more she did it, the more things improved, inside her heart and across her community. Decades later, the garden covers an acre and dozens of her neighbors join her watering lettuce and picking eggplant. Harvests go to soup kitchens, but spend an afternoon with Jenny and you’ll soon see that the cucumbers and kale are just a side benefit.
You needn’t be in mourning or wear a prison-issued orange jumpsuit to reap these benefits. Plant a seed. Ride your bike to a farmers market. Get to know the people who grow your food. Ask how leeks grow. Figure out how to eat kohlrabi. Invite strangers to dinner. Visit a farm. Take a kid fishing. Make jam. Learn what weeds are edible. Watch the shadows move. Feel the earth turn. Salve your soul.
The food itself, you may find, is the least of the things you’ll harvest.