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W.Va. inmates to start farming for food bank

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Inmates at seven minimum- and medium-security prisons in West Virginia will be sowing seeds this spring and tending plants this summer as part of a new program to grow produce for the state's largest food bank.

Planting on small prison-owned plots will begin soon for the Harvest Now program, and the Division of Corrections will donate its produce to the Mountaineer Food Bank near Gassaway, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said Friday.

Mountaineer serves 48 of West Virginia's 55 counties, distributing food to local pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, youth programs, day-care centers, senior programs and after-school nutrition programs.

"There's just such a negative connotation of corrections," Rubenstein said. "I've always just had the philosophy and desire to be good neighbors through community service and, when possible, to give back to the community."

Harvest Now began in 2008 in Connecticut, where 33,000 pounds of food was donated last year. The 22,000 pounds produced at Cybulski State Prison in Enfield helped feed 5,500 people.

Harvest Now also gives inmates a sense of purpose, said founder Brooks Sumberg, a Peace Corps veteran who launched the program in Fairfield, Conn., to help alleviate hunger and improve health. He's since lobbied corrections officials nationwide to participate.

About 97 percent of states are involved to some extent, either feeding their own inmates or feeding inmates and donating food, Sumberg said. Only a handful of states are doing nothing, and he targeted them in letters earlier this year.

New to the program this summer are West Virginia, the Frank Lee Work Release Center in Deatsville, Ala., and two prisons in Maine, Sumberg said. The prison in Enfield, Conn., meanwhile, is expanding its production area to about 10 acres this summer.

"They could easily hit 55,000 pounds to donate this year," he said.

Sumberg said he also sees potential with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has 119 facilities nationwide. Although his first pitch was rejected, he said he hasn't given up.

"They have a lot of minimum-security prisons, a lot of white-collar prisons," Sumberg said, "so we think they're going to be in a good position to do this."

Harvest Now's website states that about 33 million people in the United States have substandard diets and must seek out emergency food supplies to supplement what they can't afford.

It also states that 84 million Americans have gardens, with an average production of 100 pounds per year. Harvest Now encourages those backyard growers to find local food banks and donate what they can spare.

Rubenstein said the 1993 federal Good Samaritan Act protects his facilities from liability if they are growing and donating food to charity.

West Virginia's Denmar, Pruntytown, Huttonsville, Anthony, Beckley, Parkersburg and St. Marys correctional centers are participating.

Pruntytown Warden Debra Minnix said Harvest Now encourages the practice of letting inmates keep some of the food they grow. In the lowest-security housing units, her inmates have kitchenettes where they can prepare it.

Minnix said prisoners will grow tomatoes, potatoes, squash, carrots and cucumbers - all things that have a fairly long shelf life and can be used in multiple ways.

Parkersburg will add green peppers, zucchini, pumpkins and, perhaps, watermelon to its mix, she said.

It's too soon to predict how much the prison plots will produce, but Minnix said the food bank will weigh and track the donations.

Pruntytown, a minimum-security facility with the look and feel of a school campus, already had several small gardens, and Minnix said the inmates are eager to expand them.

"People find a lot of pleasure in that," she said. "I'm sure there are a lot of inmates who will learn stuff, too."

Harvest Now, she said, is "a good lesson about giving back to society, not just taking from society."


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