What is Growing Justice?
Growing Justice is a first-of-kind initiative designed to solve two problems at once: expand access to fresh, healthy food, both in prison and in the mainly low-income communities incarcerated people come from and return to, while also creating a pathway to employment for formerly incarcerated people in a green jobs industry expected to be valued at $155.6 billion globally by 2026.
Growing Justice features the development of a pilot indoor farm on the grounds of Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and a second pilot farm at the Impact Justice office in Oakland. These hydroponic farms built entirely inside shipping containers outfitted with grow lights and irrigation systems will produce nutrient-rich leafy greens for use in the prison’s kitchen and in Oakland communities while also functioning as job training sites for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
In sum, Growing Justice is a food production and job creation program all in one, leveraging a climate-sensitive approach to farming.
What exactly are indoor (aka vertical) farms?
Indoor farms are a technologically advanced, high-yield form of hydroponically based agriculture, also known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Indoor farms control growing conditions to optimize yields and nutritional value within a minimal footprint and with far fewer negative impacts on the environment compared to traditional farming.
Indoor farming has other benefits as well: Because indoor farming can be efficient and profitable on a small scale, both the initial and ongoing operational costs are less of a barrier to the creation of new farming businesses. This makes Growing Justice a potential launching pad for formerly incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, to eventually start their own indoor farming business – one step toward making a highly unequal industry more racially just. Currently, less than 2% of all agricultural producers in the United States are Black-owned; with the majority of other producers being white-owned, often by large corporations.
In which prisons will Growing Justice operate?
In the initial phase of this pilot project, we’re collaborating with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish a vertical farm and job training program on the grounds of Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California. We expect it will be the first of several Growing Justice sites on prison grounds across the country.
Will the produce the prison farm produces really make a difference?
When fully operational, the initial prison-based vertical farm will produce approximately 60 pounds of nutrient-rich fresh leafy greens and herbs per week, significantly enhancing daily meals. We know from our own research, captured in the 2020 report Eating Behind Bars, that prisons function as out-of-sight food deserts, where meals rarely meet nutritional standards. Among the formerly incarcerated people we surveyed nationally, only 11 percent reported reliable access to fresh vegetables.
The poor quality of the food undermines peoples’ health and dignity while they are incarcerated and in some cases for years or decades after release, perpetuating patterns of poor health in marginalized communities, many of them communities of color, where access to healthy food and healthcare is already a problem. Research shows that just one month of unhealthy eating can result in long-term rises in cholesterol and body fat, increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. A poor diet suppresses the immune system, making incarcerated people even more vulnerable to COVID-19 and other contagions and contributes to mental health and behavioral issues ranging from depression to antisocial behavior.
In this context, the health benefits from improving food in prison are obvious. What’s less apparent, but just as true, are the ways in which a healthy diet and positive relationship with food help people prepare to become fully engaged parents, family members, neighbors, and work colleagues after release, leading to safer, stronger, healthier communities, and ultimately smaller prisons. There are also benefits for correctional agencies, including operating safer facilities and spending less on treating diet-related illnesses and diseases.
Who’s eligible to participate in the prison-based job training component of Growing Justice?
At CCWF, Growing Justice primarily serves incarcerated people who are within 24 months of their scheduled release date. Additionally, people further out from release can apply to be trained and after completing the program would be eligible to work as trainers, guiding new Growing Justice participants.
What about the many formerly incarcerated people struggling to find living wage jobs? Is there a community-based job training component to Growing Justice?
It’s in the works! In addition to the prison-based vertical farms, we’re raising funds to develop a nonprofit vertical farm at Impact Justice’s home office in Oakland, California, a project we’re also undertaking in partnership with Skout Strategy. This future community-based farm will provide entry-level job training to select formerly incarcerated residents of Oakland and employ some Growing Justice graduates full time, while also expanding access to fresh food for Oakland residents.
Job training is great, but what about a reliable pathway to employment?
Absolutely. We know it takes more than just job training to begin to change the employment outlook for formerly incarcerated people when 60-75% are still jobless a year after release, despite their determination to find work.
We’re working with some of the largest vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) companies in California and beyond to create a pipeline to entry-level jobs that pay well above minimum wage at companies committed to equal opportunity hiring and invested in the success and professional advancement of their employees. Our expanding roster of corporate partners includes Square Roots, Bowery Farming and Fork Farms, as well as Agritecture and Skout Strategy. We’re also partnering with Honest Jobs to help companies fully welcome and on-board new employees with a history of incarceration.
When will Growing Justice start operating?
Early 2024. Construction of the initial vertical farm at Central California Women’s Facility will take place in the fall/winter of 2023/2024, which will coincide with the completion of Agritecture’s five-month job training curriculum for use in the prison. With both components in place and a Program Manager/Trainer installed at CCWF, we expect to enroll the first cohort of Growing Justice participants in early 2024. We’re also actively developing the community-based indoor farm at our office in Oakland with plans to begin construction along the same timeline.
Who is funding Growing Justice?
Initial funding for Growing Justice comes from the California State Legislature, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Innovations grant, and an anonymous donor.