The inmates received a national award for collecting more than 44 million tons of food waste.
When it comes to honors for reducing food waste, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has given the nod to a community of 8,250 people who you may not think of as sustainability champions – at least at first. Yet there they are, all living in Philadelphia, where they make up the average daily inmate population in the city’s prison system.
The inmates, along with about 2,600 corrections employees, received a national EPA Food Recovery Challenge Award for collecting more than 44 million tons of food waste from two of the six facilities. The EPA has provided grant funding to support composting in Philadelphia’s prisons.
Once the food waste is reclaimed from the facilities, it is processed into the compost by the inmates themselves, saving the city an estimated USD$28,000 per year in landfill fees and greatly reducing the environmental harm of all that wasted food.
The mounds of compost generated from the prison-food waste are made available for free to area residents. Some of it the prisons keep for themselves, though, because the city created a two-acre prison orchard in 2014 and grows its own apples, grapes and raspberries, among other things. The prisoners eat the food they grow or donate any available product to the community’s food banks.
The prison orchard is the largest in a city system created by Philadelphia Orchard Project, which has planted dozens of fruit-bearing plants in neighborhoods, at schools and hospitals, and in area parks.
The benefits of the city’s prison program don’t stop there. The composting operation is part of vocational training offered in partnership with Temple University and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Their students, while in prison, learn urban farming, landscaping and related skills meant to help them land jobs once they’re released. They complete 50 hours of classroom instruction along with 1,500 hours of hands-on practical training, and then receive credentials to present to future employers.
For some of them, those employers may be themselves. Graduates of the program learn to evaluate soil conditions, plan gardens and nurture healthy plants, but they also learn how to write business plans and estimate costs for the job bids they’ll one day submit to potential clients. They’re required to learn marketing skills to promote their businesses, use technology, and apply supply-chain and other sustainable business ethics.
The inmates also grow vegetables and other plants through a previously established City Harvest program, in partnership with the horticultural society. There, they also learn how to build and manage greenhouses with an eye on solar energy, and master water irrigation systems and other techniques, all while growing thousands of plants that beautify the city and mitigate the urban “food desert” problem.
Participants in the programs may be eligible for early release, and there’s some evidence that the EPA-awarded program and related city prison initiatives have cut the recidivism rate, in one case by half.
But there’s one more benefit and it can’t be quantified in tons of compost, classroom hours or apple-tree yields: The prisoners like it. They find the earthy connection brings them peace, and the hours spent outdoors in nature instead of in their cells are a healing experience. It builds their confidence, helps them envision a new start in life – and every time they succeed, it’s a win for everyone else too.