In mid-August, Farm to Institution New England (FINE) organized a site visit to two correctional facilities in Maine to see first hand some exemplary efforts to engage incarcerated residents in garden, farm and cooking operations.
FINE’s Britt Florio and Peter Allison were joined by staff from Impact Justice and Brigaid as well as members of Maine Farm to Institution (MEFTI), Native Maine Produce, and food service directors at both the New Hampshire and Vermont Departments of Corrections (DOC). The tour included the Maine State Prison and the Mountain View Correctional Facility. The visit was part of a broader initiative to bring healthier, more dignified food experiences to incarcerated populations in New England and shine a light on this often overlooked institutional sector.
At Maine State Prison, there are extensive flower and vegetable gardens and a greenhouse, organized by DOC staff member Rebekah Mende, who holds the role for coordinating sustainable garden production and education at the facility. The gardens are tended by incarcerated residents in a Master Gardener program, where most of the produce is incorporated into meals for the residents. This is not common practice, since many prison garden programs across the country are not “production” gardens, and because DOC food operations are required to buy produce from approved vendors on state contracts.
Mountain View Correctional Facility is known for its baking, composting, agriculture and local food operations, run by Food Service Director Mark McBrine. The farm at Mountain View spans five acres and produces vegetables which get processed, cooked, and served in the meals feeding the incarcerated population. The kitchen bakes nearly all of the bread served and sources 30-50% local food at a lower cost per meal than other Maine correctional facilities. The savings come from innovative purchasing arrangements McBrine makes with local vendors such as Maine Grains who supply their “run of the mill” at a deeply discounted price. This facility was initially built as a juvenile detention center, and therefore residents eat in a setting more closely resembling a school cafeteria than a typical prison chow hall. The adult incarcerated population is served meals in a well lit dining room, with an open window for the serving line, as opposed to “blind” serving stations where those receiving food have no visible connection with those who serve it.
The food in Maine’s prisons gets higher marks from advocates than prisons elsewhere. If the standard for prison food operations looked more like what is served at Mountain View, then incarcerated people would be better off. However, food is only one piece of what makes a dignified living experience for residents. FINE recognizes that while it is laudable to provide incarcerated people new skill sets, local fruits and vegetables, and more dignified chow halls, the standard for the treatment of incarcerated people in our country is still far too low. And placed within the context of the systemic injustices which imprison too many people in this country - the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world - reform of the food service operations in carceral institutions is just one step toward creating the systems change needed for genuine restorative justice and rehabilitation.
At FINE, we work to reform the food service operations while holding the larger goal of reducing recidivism and mass incarceration. FINE brings together leaders from New England DOC food service operations to share ideas and best practices, talk through challenges, develop collaborations, and offer peer support. Together, this group seeks to increase values-based regional supply chains for those currently incarcerated. At the same time, FINE is organizing another stakeholder group comprised of individuals with diverse roles and types of carceral food system experiences and objectives - from reform to abolition - to guide the direction of FINE’s programs, research, and policy advocacy in the carceral sector in collaboration with a 3-5 year strategic planning process.
If you would like to know more about FINE’s work in the carceral food sector, please contact Britt Florio, Program Manager, Brittany@farmtoinstitution.org.