Pleasant Valley Farm feeds families in need while giving inmates a taste of the real world

Prison program provides produce to Idaho Foodbank
Posted at 5:03 PM, Jul 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-24 00:22:54-04

BOISE, Idaho — A program at the Idaho Department of Correction is connecting inmates with an opportunity to give back to the community while they're serving time.

The Pleasant Valley Farm is a five-acre plot near the state prison south of Boise. Instead of letting the space go to waste, a partnership with the Idaho Foodbank dishes up about 300,000 pounds of fresh produce every summer to feed families in need.

A handful of carefully selected minimum security inmates spend about eight hours a day outside of prison walls pulling weeds and maintaining the farm.

"As part of that selection process, you want to make it mirror what it would look like applying for a job in the community as well," IDOC director Josh Tewalt said. "You make them fill out an application, you interview them and you look for the right kind of skill set that's going to allow them to not only participate but to thrive in this type of program."

Dustin Gardner loved seeing the farm come to fruition last summer, literally, so he jumped at the chance to participate in the program again this year.

"My mom was a single parent and growing up we had to use foodbanks a lot just to get by while my mom worked three jobs," Gardner said. "So I've seen the effects of a program like this and how much it can really help."

And it's helping in a major way. Food Resource Developer with the Idaho Foodbank, Don Brown, says the program runs almost entirely off donations; from free advice from local farmers to donated seeds and borrowed farm equipment -- all lending itself to a hardy harvest by the end of the season.

"We're about 1.75 million pounds so far, so that comes out to about 300,000 pounds of produce a year," Brown said. "Just from this farm that's basically five miles from the Foodbank."

It's not easy work, though.

"It seemed like it was never ending, these weeds go and go and go!" Gardner said. "But at the end of the season to see the truckloads and truckloads and truckloads of food that get to go out into the community, it warmed my heart."

Aside from giving the inmates a purpose while serving time, IDOC director says it helps prepare inmates for the real world after release.

"What we hope they gain from this is appreciation for, number one: hard work, but also the satisfaction of something that you accomplished, something you did yourself by your own determination," IDOC director Josh Tewalt said. "Giving them a sense of the real world; and sometimes that's hard to do in prison when your day is entirely managed for you. Real life is having to get up and go to work even if you don't feel like it; real life is having to struggle and pick your way through those battles."

Like any farmers, they've improved techniques over the years through trial and error, seeing major success with melons, cucumbers, green beans and beets, but one of their favorite crops to set aside space for is winter squash, because they can harvest the fruit in October and safely store it in their warehouse until the following spring and summer.

The program helps change lives for Treasure Valley families in need while rehabilitating those who need help the most.

""Sometimes in life you need a second chance to go out there and do things the right way the second time, and that's kind of what this program has given me, a second chance," Gardner said. "I get to be a part of something."