Windsor nonprofit, inmates join forces to help hungry Vermonters
WINDSOR — The Salvation Farms facility in town doesn’t look like it’s set inside a prison, and the men who work there don’t look like prisoners.
The nonprofit’s 1,800-square-foot facility looks like any other agricultural packing house, with boxes of fruits and vegetables lined up next to processing tables and cool rooms off to the side for storage.
The nine men who work there don’t look out of place either, wearing fleece coats and knit caps against the cold in the unheated space.
But just beyond the plywood doors are the barbed wire fences and cell blocks of the state’s prison work camp, and the laborers are all inmates not yet able to work outside the fence.
It’s an unusual collaboration but one that’s working to the benefit of hungry Vermonters.
Last year, said Salvation Farms Executive Director Theresa Snow, the inmates cleaned and packed just under 70,000 pounds of donated potatoes that her organization delivered to the Vermont Foodbank. That organization in turn supplies food to 270 food shelves statewide.
This harvest season, the inmates have already packed more than 40,000 pounds of winter squash, apples, potatoes, onions and carrots, she said.
“That’s a lot of food that otherwise would have gone to waste,” Snow said.
She’s not exaggerating.
For the last decade, Snow, whose organization is based in Morrisville, has promoted Salvation Farms’ mission of collecting and distributing surplus crops that farmers can’t sell and which would otherwise go unused.
But for most of that time, she lacked a workforce able to pick and process tons of produce.
“Volunteers are great, and they get a lot done, but it’s tough getting enough people who can dedicate themselves for a prolonged period of time,” she said.
Inmates from the work camp had helped her organization in the past. But it wasn’t until last year that the two sides entered into a contract that has proven mutually beneficial.
In addition to providing her organization a labor force and processing plant, the state invested $12,000 in equipment and is ready to expand the operation into an even bigger adjoining space that would have more processing capabilities if Snow’s group can raise $120,000 for construction by next spring.
That’s a tall order for a nonprofit with just 1.5 paid positions. But Snow said she’s already raised $20,000, and her group has launched a fundraising drive to come up with $40,000 by January. Information about the fundraising effort can be found on the group’s website at www.salvationfarms.org.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” she said.
But Snow is used to such challenges.
Over the years, she said, she’s forged relationships with more than 100 farmers and growers as well as regional agricultural programs like Rutland Area Farm and Food Link and agricultural schools, including Green Mountain College in Poultney. She’s also worked with the food bank and distributors like Black River Produce to move food from fields into the homes of those in need.
Her collaboration with the Corrections Department has proven to be invaluable, she said, since she now has a dedicated and enthusiastic workforce.
Officials at the work camp and Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said the program has been a boon for their rehabilitation programs as well.
All of the 100 inmates at the Windsor prison are put to work — many inside the facility, where they make license plates and wooden toys that are donated to Toys for Tots or till the facility’s 4-acre garden. Those allowed to work outside the fence are put on projects ranging from roadside cleanups to historic building renovations.
But within the range of work options, only the Salvation Farms facility has a direct link to helping hungry Vermonters eat.
“It gives them self-worth,” said Paul Brosseau, the prison’s work crew supervisor, of the inmates. “A lot of them are interested in where the food is going. It’s a good feeling for them to give back to the community for the crimes they committed.”
The workers at the Salvation Farms facility had similar sentiments.
“She does a good thing for people here, and it’s nice for us to know that what we’re doing helps people,” said Hector Vargas, of Brattleboro. “We know where our next meal is coming from. A lot of other people don’t.”
Pallito said the program also helps connect the inmates with the larger community they will eventually rejoin. The majority of the prison’s inmates are serving terms for sex offenses.
“One of the worst things you can do with people who are sex offenders is to park them in the middle of nowhere. If you put them in the community and give them proper supervision, they can connect with the community and help them feel like they’re a part of it,” he said.
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