Nonprofit Flips Abandoned Prison into Sustainable Farm With the Help of At-Risk Youth and Jobless Veterans
On the grounds of an abandoned and decommissioned prison in North Carolina, vegetables are being tended by hands that, if not for the opportunity to learn the world’s oldest occupation, might have ended up in a real prison with nowhere to go but down.
But Growing Change is an organization that believes the best solution to a problem is one that strikes at the root, not at the stem—and they have been tilling that soil since 2011.
In converting old prisons to year-round-farming and education centers, Growing Change solves several problems at once. The program synergistically brings together young men on the edge of the criminal justice system, and jobless wounded veterans returning from deployment.
Recruiting the discipline and leadership skills of the latter to teach and guide the former, Growing Change creates an environment whereby at-risk youth who need to fulfill long hours of community service can learn life skills, sustainable farming practices, and animal husbandry, with an opportunity to receive clinical therapy in an environment much more suited to young men.
“North Carolina is one of the last two states in which youth are adjudicated as adults for all charges at age 16,” explains the founder Noran Sanford. “By the time some 16 year-olds arrive in the courts they are permanently limited in their employment due to their ‘adult’ criminal record.”
In 2016, the farm in Wagram also began admitting young men facing chaos at home, failure at school, trouble with mental health or substance abuse—to salvage lives before the criminal justice cycle begins.
Sanford’s model of intensive therapy and “flipping their prisons” has seen a 92% reduction in recidivism rate among youth participants, while the national average of criminal recidivism is 43%.
“At the core level, we are instilling hope,” Sanford explains to Civil Eats. “When hope is gone, it creates a pretty vicious void that a lot of other grimmer things can get pulled into. And as low-wealth rural America is left further behind, then that vacuum is stronger. We’re breaking that stream.”
Meanwhile, the veterans work toward university degrees in environmental sciences and sustainable agriculture. Together, these individuals young and old who may have been on the fringes of society work to rehabilitate abandoned brownfields (land that might be contaminated and must be cleaned before future use) and the prison property decaying into dysfunction.
Bringing hope to all the dark places
The number of societal areas Growing Change has the capacity to reform is rare among nonprofit work. Along with the boon to the individual participants’ lives, it stands to benefit the North Carolina counties it operates in, many of which experience the consequences of poor health outcomes arising from a diets of mostly processed foods.
This is because some of these counties have no locally grown produce, a fact that has produced some startling facts about a part of the country most are not familiar with.
Wagram’s Scotland County, is one of the poorest counties in NC with the state’s highest unemployment and food insecurity rate.
Because the incarceration rate in the U.S. is at its lowest level in more than two decades—with imprisonment among black Americans down by 34% since 2006—North Carolina is shuttering prisons and correctional facilities across the state, with dozens of such facilities already closed.
Along with offering a collection of buildings to be repurposed into education and art centers, prisons are ideal for conversion into farms because of their sturdy, gopher-and-sheep-proof fences, and large open spaces. With the properties belonging to the state in decay, officials are more than happy to consign the land to such projects.
The prison kitchen has been converted into a commercial-grade community kitchen where the county will provide training on preparing and preserving food, while also serving as a classroom for students receiving training in foodservice and culinary arts, and to offer Farm-to-Classroom trips to educate children on nutritious foods.
The crops produced by GrowingChange farm are also sold to local restaurants, a business enterprise aspect of the project that allows the program be self-sustaining for years, fertilizing entrepreneurship into the hearts of all who work here.
WATCH a video and learn how you can help at GrowingChange.org…