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Innovation of the Week: Gardening “Boot Camps” for Troubled Youth

Rather than a jail term, a program from the Cook County Boot Camp in Illinois is finding ways to reach troubled youth and inmates through urban gardening. Among the educational and vocational offerings the program offers is work in a three-quarter-acre garden that produces tomatoes, kale, carrots, and a host of other vegetables. The young male inmates learn life lessons and job skills through gardening, leading some to explore new career opportunities and lifestyle choices through agriculture and green jobs.

The Chicago Botanic Garden teaches inmates about sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. (Photo Credit: New York Times)

The first group of inmates to participate in the program built 30 raised beds, planted an acre of vegetable transplants and seeds, and maintained the farm during their 18-week program. Since the garden’s establishment in 2009, more than 3,000 pounds of produce have been harvested. Whatever is not consumed in the camp’s mess hall is distributed to food pantries over the course of the growing season.

In 2012, the facility installed a compost operation to break down food waste, paper scraps, and other organic material into compostable matter. The resulting compost is applied to the garden, creating an independent and efficient food system for the facility.

“We’ve designed the program so we would be able to grow our own food,” said Frank Johnson, director of programs at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp. “If we can grow our own food, we can demonstrate what we can do both to the guys working in the garden and to everybody else.”

The boot camp is operated by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program, which in partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago now provides a certificate in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture for boot camp graduates. To encourage participation and provide viable economic opportunity, graduates can earn $9.50 an hour while attending classes and working at various gardens, urban farms, and farmers markets around the city. Former inmates Brian Devitt and Nicholas Walker, for example, have both chosen agriculture as a career and are now working as employees of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

With all that has been accomplished, the program is still growing. A new partnership with Kraft Foods has built a corporate garden in the company’s global headquarters that will provide fresh produce to area food banks. Windy City Harvest and Cook County Boot Camp graduates maintain the garden, which aims to produce 14,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables—or 28,000 meals—annually, all to be distributed locally.

Emily Gilbert is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s food and agriculture program.

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