Garden yields food for needy, therapy for inmates

A new garden is allowing Cowlitz County Jail inmates to feed the hungry and nourish their own lives.

“It’s nice to give back to the community,” said William Sherrett, 26, of Kalama, an inmate in the state work release program, as he planted winter potatoes Monday in a garden plot next to the Cowlitz County Jail. At harvest time, Help Warehouse will distribute the potatoes and other root vegetables to local food banks.

Since June, Sherrett and his fellow work-release inmates have been tending the 60-by-30-foot plot, a collaborative effort of the Department of Corrections, Pioneer Human Services and Lower Columbia CAP. The fall harvest yielded 610 pounds of fresh vegetables.

“Fresh produce is such a luxury for our food banks,” said Lois Shelton, program manager of CAP’s Help Warehouse, which distributed the produce to the Salvation Army, FISH, St. Vincent de Paul and Northgate City Church, as well as to the 1,200 families who pick up government commodities at Help Warehouse once a month.

The food bank system distributes an average of 5,500 boxes of groceries monthly, or 1.7 million pounds of food a year, said Mike Torres of CAP. About 2,600 people receive commodities each year; a third of them are senior citizens on a fixed income and one-half are children under 12.

The seed of the garden idea came from Keith Lawrence, Pioneer Human Services director of the state work release program in Longview. Lawrence, who in 2005 started an inmate garden to stretch his program’s food budget, eyed the grassy lot between the jail and Work Release and decided it was “a waste of this ground to not do something with it,” he said.

He proposed the idea of a collaborative garden to Ron Junker, Cowlitz County parks director, and Shelton of CAP. The county OK’d the use of the land. CAP donated seeds for squash, carrots, peas, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and lettuce in the summer garden, and potatoes, carrots, onions and beets for the winter. The DOC provides equipment and inmate labor, and Pioneer provides staffing and oversight of the inmates. The Master Gardeners provide instruction and technical assistance.

Between 15 and 20 correctional residents have participated in the gardening program.

“We get more volunteers than we can handle,” Lawrence said. “For a lot of guys this is really therapeutic for them.”

“I love gardening,” said inmate Jordan Pruitt, 52, of Winlock, working up a sweat in the cold morning air as he patted dirt over seed potatoes Sherrett placed in a trench dug by Jim Van Renselaar, 47, of Morton, and Tanner Russell, 21, of Centralia.

“I’ve been gardening all my life,” Pruitt said. “I get to be outside and work.”

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