What should the garden grow?

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Inmates garden at the Red Wing correctional facility (MPR Photo/Julie Siple)

Prisoners at the Red Wing minimum-security prison plant vegetables often left to the serious gardener: kale, Swiss chard, purple carrots, chocolate-colored peppers. They spend hours poring over seed catalogs, steamy afternoons weeding. They donate the surplus to the local food shelf.

The problem is, not everyone at the food shelf knows what to do with chard.

More state prisons are likely to start gardens next spring under a new law that takes effect today. On Morning Edition, we reported on the program at the Red Wing facility, which may serve as a model for new gardens. According to warden Kathy Halvorson, the program reduces idle time and builds the inmates’ skills and confidence.

Red Wing Area Food Shelf director Dee Bender appreciates every bit of produce, as fresh food is hard for the food shelf to come by. But while Bender has to ration the cucumbers and carrots, the less common items aren’t as popular.

“We had some heirloom tomatoes, which I thought were beautiful, but they looked different and so those kind of sat to the side,” she said. “Where the rosy red tomatoes that you’re used to seeing were chosen.”

The food shelf provides recipes for the unusual items and encourages clients to try new produce, but Bender said some aren’t accustomed to it.

“Unless you grew up either growing your own produce, or you had a family that cooked a variety of foods, you’re used to some pretty basic foods,” Bender said. “Vegetables consist of fresh tomatoes, maybe carrots and lettuce. I think you go with what you know.”

Her advice to the gardeners: Keep it basic.

Red Wing inmate and gardener Cory Schilling hears what Bender is saying. Schilling, who is serving a sentence for a felony DWI, is no stranger to food shelves. He used them as a child.

“Almost my whole childhood, I remember not only being poor but knowing we were poor,” he said. He spends hours in the garden partly to help “children who are experiencing the same thing I did.”

The inmates plant basic vegetables because they know the food shelf needs them, he said, but they mix in variety because they want to expose people to something new.

“Hey, this tomato might look purple and striped,” Schilling said. “But it tastes like a tomato, cooks like a tomato, eats like a tomato. It adds a little color to their life, too. And maybe they try something new, maybe they grow something new. You never know. The one person that comes across that might be planting tomatoes next year. Purple ones.”

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