The SLO Garden Project: The Creation of the San Luis Obispo County Jail Garden (Part 1)

by Ellie Gertler, Program & Communications Associate, Grassroots Change

Grassroots Change welcomes Ellie Gertler, our new Program & Communications Associate. As a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2013, Ellie planned and led a project to build a community garden at the San Luis Obispo County Jail that provided practical farming education and a healthier food system for inmates. In part 1 of this 2-part series, Ellie covers the vision and implementation phase of her project.

As senior year approached, so did planning for senior projects, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s culminating project required for graduation. As a student in the sociology department, I was more interested in connecting with the community than sitting in front of a computer and writing another paper. As a resident of San Luis Obispo (SLO) for the past few years, I also felt a responsibility to give back directly to the community.

Ellie Gertler, Grassroots Change

Ellie Gertler, Grassroots Change

A classmate and I began considering ways to connect our background in sociology with the vibrant agricultural culture of California’s Central Coast. Our advisor referred us to Sister Theresa Harpin, the founder of Restorative Partners, whose mission is to “mobilize and coordinate programs that create positive changes and promote a restorative justice approach to crime.” Sister Theresa introduced us to the work of Restorative Partners and their many programs in the SLO County Jail, Juvenile Hall, and California Men’s Colony, all run by volunteers and community members. Once we mentioned our interest in agriculture, Sister Theresa informed us of unused space at the county jail that could be used for a garden. We were intrigued, excited, had many questions, and ultimately decided that this would be the perfect project to both complete our studies and get involved with a local community that we were unfamiliar with.

We immediately started brainstorming ideas: The garden could be used as both an educational model to teach gardening skills and practices, and to produce real food that would go straight into the jail’s kitchen, leading to healthier diets. The garden would also enable the inmates to spend productive time outdoors with their hands in the dirt, and require accountability and responsibility; skills that could help inmates succeed after release. Our ultimate goal was to use the garden as a means to connect a marginalized community with the broader community to build long-lasting relationships that could educate, heal, and have a positive impact on everyone involved.

First Steps      

First, we attended a Restorative Partners’ Orientation at the jail, meeting with the officers we would be working with, sharing our initial plans, and getting acquainted with the inmates. As soon as we started, we could barely keep track of the questions we faced: How would we get the materials and funding that we needed to support this project? How would we teach inmates about gardening when we didn’t know that much ourselves? How would the male inmates, many of whom had a high school education or lower, respond to two young college-educated women entering their space? And, perhaps most important, could we really make a lasting difference?

We began to tackle these questions one by one, starting with weekly visits to the jail during the summer before senior year. We surveyed the space to get a better understanding of what was feasible, we talked with the officers who let us know what was possible in terms of planting, harvesting, and programming, and we reached out to the communities of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly to see what materials and resources could be donated.

Our next step was to reach out to businesses and organizations, such as local hardware stores and plant nurseries, the agriculture department on campus, the Poly Plant Shop, and local farms to see if any would be willing to donate materials, labor, expertise, or other resources. To our surprise, people were very supportive of the project and community members offered to help in any way they could. For example, the Cal Poly agriculture department was able to donate and deliver large amounts of compost, seeds, and seedlings, and a former employee of the jail also donated seedlings. Most importantly, the inmates themselves not only offered to help, but were excited to help, as some of them already had extensive knowledge about gardening and many of the skills we lacked. The fact that the inmates were receptive to our project and were eager to start was a welcome sign to us that we were beginning to bridge the gap between our communities.

We began forming relationships with the inmates and officers at the jail, an initial step toward our goal of bridging the gap between these two communities. We wanted to know what the inmates wanted out of the garden, what they were interested in learning, what they wanted to plant, and what types of projects they wanted to work on. We wanted this project to be a collaborative effort between all of us who were involved, and were especially intent on the garden not only being for the inmates, but by the inmates.

As planting began and seeds started to sprout, we also saw growth in our relationships with the inmates and others. We learned that many of the inmates and volunteers had previously worked in agriculture or landscaping, and one inmate had even worked for the Cal Poly Organic Farm. This meant that the inmates could take full responsibility for the upkeep of the garden throughout the week, and some inmates would be assigned to work on the garden daily. Our weekly visits consisted of learning about the new projects that had been implemented that week, pest management, harvesting, and planting.

On one of our most memorable visits to the garden we noticed a new structure that had not been there the previous week. We learned that an inmate had taken it upon himself to plan, construct, and manage a greenhouse using recycled materials from the jail. We were excited knowing that even when we weren’t there, the inmates were working, learning new skills, and creating a healthier environment for themselves.

Maybe we really were making a difference…

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the SLO jail garden story to learn about the Success and Sustainability of the project.

Ellie Gertler is a passionate advocate for the City of Oakland (CA), social justice, the environment, and positive change. Following her graduation from Cal Poly SLO, she served as a fellow at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, CA, where she studied and implemented practices in urban farming, social justice, and food systems. Ellie was also the Run Director for Running for a Better Oakland, a local nonprofit teaching K-12th grade students healthy lifestyles through running.