CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Inmates at seven minimum- and medium-security prisons in West Virginia will be sowing seeds this spring and tending plants this summer as part of a new program to grow produce for the state's largest food bank.
Planting on small prison-owned plots will begin soon for the Harvest Now program, and the Division of Corrections will donate its produce to Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said Friday.
Mountaineer serves 48 of West Virginia's 55 counties, distributing food to local pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, youth programs, day care centers, senior programs and after-school nutrition programs.
"There's just such a negative connotation of corrections," Rubenstein said. "I've always just had the philosophy and desire to be good neighbors through community service and, when possible, to give back to the community."
Harvest Now began in 2008 in Connecticut, where 33,000 pounds of food was donated last year. The 22,000 pounds produced at Cybulski State Prison in Enfield helped feed 5,500 people.
Harvest Now also gives inmates a sense of purpose, said founder Brooks Sumberg, a Peace Corps veteran who launched the program in Fairfield, Conn., to help alleviate hunger and improve health. He's since lobbied corrections officials nationwide to participate.
About 97 percent of states are involved to some extent, either feeding their own inmates or feeding inmates and donating food, Sumberg said. Only a handful of states were doing nothing, and he targeted them in letters earlier this year.
New to the program this summer are West Virginia, the Frank Lee Work Release Center in Deatsville, Ala., and two prisons in Maine, Sumberg said. The prison in Enfield, Conn., meanwhile, is expanding its production area to about 10 acres this summer.
"They could easily hit 55,000 pounds to donate this year," he said.
Sumberg also sees potential with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has 119 facilities nationwide. Though his first pitch was rejected, he said hasn't given up.
"They have a lot of minimum-security prisons, a lot of white-collar prisons," Sumberg said, "so we think they're going to be in a good position to do this."