Inmates grow through gardening program

The Seasons of Grace garden at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women produced a bumper crop of squash and other fruits and vegetables in its first season. Photo courtesy of the Seasons of Grace garden project

Sally Reeske has been teaching horticulture at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, a minimum-custody prison, for the past two years. While the vocational course through A-B Tech offers inmates hands-on learning and training opportunities via an instructional plot, Reeske wondered if she could do even more for the incarcerated women and the community at large. This spring, she recruited help from Warren Wilson College in the form of borrowed equipment and student-intern manpower, and, with the work of inmates interested in planting and harvesting, the Seasons of Grace garden program at SCCW was born.

Women housed at the Swannanoa Correctional Center have been growing produce to augment the offerings of the dining hall, with extra bounty going to MANNA FoodBank. Photo courtesy of the Seasons of Grace garden project
Women housed at the Swannanoa Correctional Center have been growing produce to augment the offerings of the dining hall, with extra bounty going to MANNA FoodBank. Photo courtesy of the Seasons of Grace garden project

Through producing food, the program is on a mission to “grow a foundation to build women’s self-esteem, creativity and resilience,” Reeske shares, adding that it also aims to express appreciation to the community by donating the fruits of its labor to MANNA FoodBank.

To start, though, Seasons of Grace participants focused on getting fresh fruits and vegetables directly to the SCCW population. By midsummer, the all-volunteer group had already succeeded in its effort: A bumper crop of yellow crookneck translated into two servings of squash for each of the more than 300 women housed there.

“It felt like an awesome victory,” Reeske recalls. Their next goal? Serving up 300 soon-to-be-ripe melons.

“Fruits and vegetables aren’t necessarily abundant in the dining hall, or at least certain foods,” Reeske explains. The team purposefully planted varieties they knew the women want to eat, including honeydews, watermelons and cantaloupes.

Inmates, officers and dining hall staff have been appreciative of their work, raving about the resulting meals, she notes.

Through a partnership between Seasons of Grace and the nonprofit Mountain BizWorks, the garden volunteers received assistance in creating a plant sale this past weekend at the Sourwood Festival in Black Mountain. The event served as a fundraiser for Seasons of Grace, which doesn’t receive funding from the center or A-B Tech. But Reeske feels the community connections made there are even more valuable, noting that many customers shared interest in volunteering with the garden project and other efforts at SCCW.

Mountain BizWorks also recently hosted an entrepreneurial info session for women in the center who may be interested in starting their own business.

“If you start a small business and you were formerly incarcerated, you might be more likely to hire someone who was also formerly incarcerated,” Reeske says. “That creates an economy for people who typically have a very challenging time once they’re released … because they have to check that box.”

Ultimately, Seasons of Grace piggybacks on the aims of BizWorks’ offerings and A-B Tech’s course: reduced recidivism rates and successful reintegration.

“Growing your own food can be very empowering,” Reeske says. “I think seeing a project through from start to finish, like from seed to harvest, can be very empowering.”

It’s also about cultivating confidence, she stresses, by forming a connection with nature and wonder: “That keeps you growing, even in a place where it’s not that easy to feel inspired.”

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About Maggie Cramer
Writer, Editor, Communications Specialist

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