Kale, Not Jail: Urban Farming Nonprofit Helps Ex-Cons Re-enter Society

Gavin Raders, one of the founders of Planting Justice, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit that combines urban farming with environmental education and jobs for ex-offenders.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Even by the standards of the Bay Area, where sourcing local, organic chicken feed is seen as something of a political act, the spectacle of 30,000 fruit and nut trees being tended by formerly incarcerated orchardists is novel.

The green thumbs are there because of Planting Justice, a nine-year-old nonprofit that combines urban farming with environmental education and jobs for ex-offenders. From its headquarters in a pair of salvaged shipping containers on a dead-end street in East Oakland, Calif., Planting Justice has forged a trail in which revenue-generating businesses help subsidize the group’s core mission: hiring former inmates, many from nearby San Quentin State Prison, and giving them a “family sustaining” wage, along with health benefits and a month of paid leave annually. About half the total staff of 30 have served time in prison.

Two years ago, the group’s founders — Gavin Raders, 35, and Haleh Zandi, 34 — established an orchard on a weedy, vacant lot in this area of stubborn poverty, where the pruning is serenaded not by birds but droning trucks from the adjacent freeway. Planting Justice’s Rolling River Nursery now sells and ships some 1,100 varieties of potted trees and plants — among them, 65 different kinds of pomegranates, 60 varieties of figs, and loads of harder-to-find species such as jujubes (Chinese dates), Japanese ume plums and rue, an aromatic herb used in Ethiopian coffee. Signs warn visitors that they have entered a pesticide- and soda-free zone.

Though still young, the organic orchard generates roughly $250,000 of Planting Justice’s yearly $2 million operating budget. Another $250,000 comes from an edible landscaping business, in which roving horticulturalists hired by well-off clients install beehives, fruit trees, chicken coops, massive barrels for harvesting rain water and “laundry to landscaping” systems that funnel used washing machine water into the garden. The money helps subsidize pro bono edible landscapes in low-income neighborhoods.

In addition, there are the 2,000 or so “subscribers” who make monthly pledges to Planting Justice, which brings in another $450,000 annually, and grants from a variety of nonprofit organizations, among them the Kresge FreshLo program, the Thomas J. Long Foundation and Kaiser Permanente’s community benefit programs.

Planting Justice cultivates metaphors along with the food. “We’re composting and weeding the things in our lives we don’t need and fertilizing the parts of ourselves we do need,” Mr. Raders explained, sitting on a eucalyptus stump.

The guiding principle: kale, not jail.

Mr. Raders and Ms. Zandi, who are partners and have two children together, got their start as door-to-door peace activists. Mr. Raders had spent some time in India protesting a Coca-Cola bottling plant that was depleting groundwater. The couple eventually decided they wanted to commit to something tangible, particularly since “there was a war happening in our own community — violence and multigenerational poverty,” Mr. Raders said.

The two began volunteering at the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin, part of a broader “green prison” movement that includes career pathways. The San Quentin program is intended to provide horticultural skills, positive social interactions and a sense of agency to medium-security inmates.

Studies of the garden programs at San Quentin and at Rikers Island in New York City indicated lower recidivism rates than state averages, perhaps not surprising given the bleakness of prison environments and the relief that access to nature can bring, said Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge.

Of the 35 formerly incarcerated workers hired by Planting Justice since 2009, only one is known to have returned to prison, Mr. Raders said. Employees must commit to staying sober and drug free. A few have gone into detox programs and rebounded, but two were let go because of poor job performance, he said.

Anthony Forrest, 56, who served 25 years at San Quentin for armed robbery, started his job at Planting Justice five days after his release, earning $17.50 an hour. (He now makes $25 an hour.)

“Working in the garden calms me down,” Mr. Forrest said. His first assignment was building vegetable gardens for clients and planting fruit trees at the county juvenile justice center. He now leads weekly educational programs at four Oakland schools, another part of Planting Justice’s mission, helping students plant and maintain raised vegetable beds, whipping up nettle smoothies for dubious teenagers and teaching a health- and nutrition-oriented class “about what goes into your body,” as he put it.

“We live in the ghetto,” he added. “Everything you see on the shelves is not nutritious and has been sitting around.” Mr. Forrest also recently started teaching meditation and gardening at the prison where he once served.

Jennifer Sowerwine, an urban agriculture specialist for the University of California Cooperative Extension at Berkeley, said that Ms. Zandi and Mr. Raders have “shifted the conversation around food justice.”

“It’s not just about food security, but the security of providing living wages,” she said. That’s no mean feat in a foodie monoculture.

Planting Justice has also had success with crowdsourced funding. When offered the chance to buy 30,000 trees from a nursery that was closing, Ms. Zandi and Mr. Raders raised $100,000 through Kickstarter and secured additional funding. Then there was issue of where to put 30,000 trees: The Northern California Community Loan Fund came through with a $600,000 loan to help finance the acquisition of the East Oakland land.

Carla Javits, the president and chief executive of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, which funds and advises social enterprises, said that the entrepreneurial approach taken by Ms. Zandi and Mr. Raders is on point. “It used to be embarrassing for nonprofits to talk about revenue,” she said. “But a new generation of leaders recognize they have to be intentional about their business model.”

Once East Oakland is paid off, Planting Justice plans to transfer ownership of the property to an indigenous land trust — one led by women, no less. It’s an effort to redress the trauma done to the Ohlone people, the Bay Area’s original inhabitants, and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has already started building ceremonial grounds on the site. Planting Justice also has a long-term lease on another farm for propagating trees.

But for now, the main focus is on aiding these former inmates, and trying to help ease their way back into life in the outside world.

No one is suggesting that it’s an easy task. Bilal Coleman, a current employee of Planting Justice who went to prison at age 17 and was released 20 years later, wrote in his blog The Freedom Chronicles about the challenges of his first year of freedom, including the stresses of housing a family in Oakland. Now, he makes kale smoothies for high school students and tries to engage the ones who seem most at risk.

“I believe I have an edge up,” he said of his own experience, which has been hard-won. “In East Oakland, what’s fashionable are the hustlers. Now my hustle is the garden.”

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