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Up with Cows, Down with Hoosegows

Ari Paul May 3, 2012

Check out all the Indy Food Coverage from Issue 176:

Veteran activist Lauren Melodia noticed something during a bus trip to Canuco Farm in upstate New York in New Paltz. She was taking a group of low-income, mostly African-American teenagers from a housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to visit the farm associated with their neighborhood’s local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. During the drive, some of the youths noted that they had never been north of the city for any reason — other than to visit a relative in prison.

Melodia saw a new opportunity to marry her two passions: food justice and prison reform, and Milk Not Jails was born.

The rural upstate economy relies heavily on agriculture and prisons — and as criminal justice reform activists note, the New York prison population is shrinking. Crime has decreased steadily since the 1980s, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has closed seven prisons during his first term, reducing the number of prisons upstate to 59. Reforms in 2009 to the draconian Rockefeller Drug laws reduced the stream of prisoners going upstate; instead, courts have sought alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

The central remaining obstacles to more prison reform are upstate politicians and the corrections officers’ union, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which wants to keep prisons open to keep people employed. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, with a budget of $2.9 billion, currently employs more than 19,000 correction officers to supervise approximately 56,000 inmates.

Milk Not Jails, which was founded in 2010, seeks to address the economic problems of rural upstate New York by promoting the high-road dairy sector, and thus, over time, reducing the upstate economy’s dependence on prison jobs. Through building relationships with more than 250 small-scale dairy farmers, the organizers — based in Manhattan — plan to distribute Milk Not Jails’ dairy products at CSAs and buying clubs downstate. There are 11 CSAs on board so far, with the number growing as more CSA members urge their groups to join.

“We’re not leading any new political effort,” said Brenden Beck, an organizer with Milk Not Jails. “We’re supporting the already robust organizing around agricultural reform and prisons reform going on in the state.”

The group’s platform includes preserving state farmlands, legalizing the sale of raw milk products, increasing the use of state farm food in schools and passing the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in the New York State Assembly, which, according to the group’s literature, would “allow judges to sentence domestic violence survivors convicted of crimes directly related to the abuse they suffered to shorter prison terms and, in some cases, to community-based alternative-to-incarceration programs instead of prison.”

There are 5,380 dairy farms in New York, which make up more than half of the state’s farming economy. Milk Not Jails hopes to use its products not only to bring money to upstate farms, but also to fund prison reform campaigns and educate consumers about how supporting the upstate dairy economy helps undercut the power of the prison industry.

The plan is not without problems. One of the original farmers involved with the project has since ceased operating due to financial difficulties. Farming has high overhead, and land speculation has driven up prices in parts of upstate, forcing many small farmers out of the market.

The prison system creates civil service jobs with pensions and benefits, and it isn’t clear that, if prisons close due to an inmate population decline, the proliferation of organic dairy farms could employ the same number of people and provide jobs with equivalent benefits.

“We think that the quality of jobs is based on what creates [them], and a job based on locking people up is not a good job,” Beck said.

“You can’t really dispute that it is bad policy to base prison policy on economic need,” Melodia added.

But the group’s upstate allies are still optimistic. Downstate, Milk Not Jails already has agreements to distribute products at CSAs in the Lower East Side, Park Slope, DUMBO, Harlem and Sunnyside.

“It’s a way to open up dialogue, to talk about where these prisons are placed,” said Steven Googin, who operates a small dairy farm outside of Syracuse and hopes to get other farmers from Central New York on board to support Milk Not Jails and transport their products to the city. “How do you have this wholesome farm next to something that is so cold and dark?”

He added that creating a healthier, more sustainable food system for the state would have a direct impact on the way society views criminal justice.

“When you’re starting to eat better you get healthier and think healthier and choose to do things, you build community, you create a society that doesn’t have the need to send people to jail,” Googin said. “There’s more of a community that looks out for each other, if someone is having a hard-knock life, maybe you’d lend them a hand.”

Beck sees this model becoming a national, ecumenical effort: “In California, it will be Avocados Not Jails. In Pennsylvania, it will be Lettuce Not Jails.”

He added, “Our long term goal is to be Farms Not Jails.” Or perhaps, if his dream of society dismantling prisons is one day realized, “just Farms.”