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Cultivating Change: Lettuce Grow's Impact in Oregon Prisons

in our own words lettuce grow


Lettuce Grow began in 2009 as the result of a PSU sustainability class taken by volunteers and inmates together at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution, Oregon’s only female correctional facility. The class led to the creation of a garden and a gardening curriculum for inmates, taking the form of OSU’s Seed to Supper Class. The program eventually spread to nine correctional facilities around the state, supporting their gardens and offering multiple classes relating to horticulture and gardening that culminated in participants receiving job certificates.

In 2015, Lettuce Grow merged with Growing Gardens, and this work continues today within Growing Gardens’ broader mission of fighting injustice in the food system. Growing Gardens rejects the idea that all incarcerated people are simply bad people who deserve punishment and must be kept separate from the rest of society. Like poor nutritional outcomes, ending up in a correctional facility is a result of systemic forces manifesting themselves in individual lives, not of inherent deficiencies in a community or individual person.

Growing Gardens believes that everyone deserves access to fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant food and positive experiences in the garden. This right does not reach its limits at the walls of correctional facilities, which mark a boundary for much of society’s empathy and recognition of humanity. This belief also does not mean that populations lacking food security or access to nature are helpless and in need of saving. 


Why Gardens?

The systemic injustice present in both the criminal justice and food systems is a direct and intentional result of racism. Growing Gardens believes that growing one’s own food is an opportunity to move away from this system, one that is grounded in racism, in favor of one that values humanity and justice. In order for this to be possible, there must be a collective effort to not only acknowledge history and injustice, but to actively dismantle and change the systems whose foundations they form.  Lettuce Grow aims for its classes and gardens to provide a space where growing food can be a restorative and self-sustaining act, something to do solely by one’s own choice with personal enjoyment and well-being as the goals.


Lettuce Grow Sites

Lettuce Grow works with 12 state adult facilities, one adult federal facility, one youth facility, and one transitional facility, managing and supporting gardens and offering six classes across these sites. This programming provides an environment where people’s creativity, intelligence, and talents can thrive. These values already exist, Lettuce Grow does not bestow them on people but empowers them to exercise them in the pursuit of their own health. Some participants have strong backgrounds in gardening or farming, and some have never gardened before in their lives but discover a talent and passion for growing things.

At Coffee Creek, the gardener in the minimum security facility created a dragon out of succulents based on a drawing created by another one of the gardeners' sons. At OSCI two participants built a miniature model of a greenhouse for their capstone project in the Greenhouse Management class, complete with ventilation, gutters, and shelving, instead of the two-dimensional plan that is required. Participants have produced incredible artwork, poetry, and plans to make food systems more just and sustainable in response to their experiences in gardens and horticulture classes. 

Here, you can find participant work and more details about the programming by site  Lettuce Grow programming differs at each of these sites, depending on the specific context and people involved.

By foregrounding participant voices, Growing Gardens hopes to highlight the talent of people involved in Lettuce Grow, as well as to emphasize the common ground that can be found through gardening. All of Growing Gardens’ programming seeks to build community through growing. At Lettuce Grow, this looks like volunteers working alongside program participants in the garden, not only offering practical gardening support but forging relationships. Additionally, gardening together allows participants to connect with and learn from one another. Upon completion of classes, graduates have the opportunity to then teach the class to others. Participants develop lesson plans together, and lead lessons specific to their own expertise and interests.

Growing Gardens aims to honor both the intrinsic emotional and spiritual value of gardening and the practical nutritional and economic benefits it can offer. Participants’ testimonials of the inspiration and joy they have found in the garden is reflected in the statistics as well. The criminal justice system is not designed to support people in re-entering society. While the inmate recidivism rate in the state of Oregon is 30%, it is 4% for past Lettuce Grow participants. 

Many participants are able to find employment in the horticulture or culinary fields soon after release, with job credentials from the Sustainable Gardening and Greenhouse management classes, and highly sought-after skillsets from the Plant Disease Diagnostic Training, Plant Taxonomy, and Culinary Arts classes. These classes, coupled with hands-on experience in the garden, can serve people in their personal lives as well, allowing them to continue and expand their gardening practice and enjoy the heightened food security and overall well-being that this brings.

In 2020, Lettuce Grow worked with prison gardens to produce over 365,536 pounds of food for prison kitchens and 10,340 pounds of food for food banks and community organizations across the state, increasing access to fresh produce for people both inside and outside of correctional institutions. Including produce from the garden in meals not only offers physical health benefits, but, importantly, pleasure, connection, and more mindful eating due to eating something fresh and grown by one’s peers.

Additionally, gardening provides a tie to the natural world, something not often fostered in prison environments. Past participants have said that maintaining a connection to the passage of time and seasonal changes through watching plants grow and responding to environmental factors creates a sense of forward motion, and can also help the transition upon release feel less overwhelming. 

Growing Gardens believes that these feelings that gardening brings are something that we all share. Anyone who has tended to a garden or tasted something fresh that they grew themselves knows the emotional power that these experiences hold. By ensuring that everyone is able to access such feelings, we hope we can begin to cultivate stronger communities.

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