Reverence for the Land

July 20th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Reverence for the Land

This past Sunday, July 18, Nelson Mandela celebrated his 92nd birthday. Mr. Mandela has worked his entire life for peace, and against the oppression of apartheid in South Africa. His accomplishments are both numerous and significant: anti-apartheid activist; winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993; and elected as President of South Africa in 1994 after the first multi-racial elections were held. He is a man who is loved and respected throughout the world. Although not his most noteworthy contribution, nor the most publicized, Mandela did make a small contribution to the world of agriculture. As Rachel Cernansky writes:

Nelson Mandela may have started it all when he was in prison—”A garden is one of the few things in prison that one could control,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Being a custodian of this patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”

But the idea probably rose to national fame only earlier this past decade, when the Garden Project of San Francisco started selling fresh produce to Alice Waters’s acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant. Catherine Sneed, the woman who in 1992 founded that project, which is a post-release program for ex-prisoners, did so because she had already seen such success with the Horticulture Program at the San Francisco County Jail, where she would go out on a daily basis with prisoners to work on the farm within the boundaries of the jail. The vegetables they grew were donated to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Her moment of realization of a need for a post-release program came when one student of hers asked the visiting sheriff for permission to stay and work on the farm; Sneed recalled, “he had nothing on the outside.”

States such as Washington, Oregon, New York and Wisconsin are also developing similar programs where inmates and ex-prisoners are raising food that is used inside the prison walls, with surpluses being sent to local food banks or other community centers or services.

Nothing can change the events or circumstances that have landed someone in prison, but what can change is who they are and how they live their lives while serving their time. These farming and gardening projects seem like an opportunity for both the inmates and the surrounding communities. There is plenty of hate that makes its way around in prison. If we truly expect to rehabilitate people, we must begin by eliminating the hate and replacing it with creativity, education, and yes, love. Growing food can change lives. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela, and thanks for everything!