The Garden Project Empowers San Francisco’s At-Risk Youth
Our criminal justice system is broken and we need reform, but how exactly do we go about that as a nation? Does it begin with ending private prisons, which account for 8.4 percent of the 1.6 million people in state and federal jails? Or can it begin with something simple yet profound, like using two hands to pull weeds, plant seeds, grow life, and give back? This was Catherine Sneed’s vision when she began The Garden Project in 1980. Sneed grew up in New Jersey; her mother died early and her father was in the army. “Gardening wasn’t a fun childhood memory nor was it something I thought I was going to do with my life,” she told me when I visited Sneed and her brother David at their garden at the San Francisco County Jail San Bruno Complex.
The family name, Sneed, is an English word that means caretaker of someone else’s woods. This was a precursor for what was to come, but she would have to hitchhike to California, attend law school, work with inmates on death row, face a near death experience (with her health), and read “The Grapes of Wrath” to recognize the wink of destiny. “Gardening is the recipe for success,” Sneed explained of the Garden Project she would later initiate in San Francisco. “This is how we stop crime”.
Sneed has since spent 35 years at the San Bruno County Jail in San Francisco, where she teaches inmates, ex-cons, and at-risk youth the array of life lessons that gardening yields. When she began there were no gardening tools, but inmates had something far more valuable– the flesh and bone of their own two hands.
“When I first started working here, there was a small brick building housing approximately 1,500 people. At one point there were so many prisoners in custody that they were housing three inmates in [what was built to be] a single cell with one toilet. It was seven stories and it had be condemned. They were able to tear it down finally and build this,” Sneed points to two circular domes behind us, with a pearl-shaped coloring that gives off a glare when the California sun shines down brightly upon them.
The current infrastructure of The Garden Project Farm took shape in 2006, after the 60-year-old compound, which was at one point considered to be ‘the most modern jail in the world’, began to crumble.
Sitting on San Francisco-owned watershed land, the infrastructure, at the time of this writing, houses 768 inmates. But it’s not just the infrastructure that’s changed during Sneed’s time at the prison: “what people are going to jail for has changed,” she explained.
“When I started working at the prison there was a huge crack epidemic. I was teaching 300 sentenced prisoners horticulture for half an hour a day in groups of 60 or so at a time. The first flower we grew was Borage. Then we started growing vegetables for the soup kitchens and pantries throughout San Francisco. But when the prisoners got out of jail, they had nothing to do and they weren’t too concerned about coming back. That wasn’t good… so I started The Garden Project as an employment program for ex-offenders. From there we secured contracts with the city, forming The Tree Corps. We went on to plant 10,000 trees,” she told me.
Aside from prisoners earning their GED or attending drug and alcohol treatment, The Garden Project gave people who were accustomed to being in and out of the system a reason to stay straight. It was an employment opportunity but there was also an enormous sense of pride attached to their work. “On the weekends, they’d drive around with their family pointing out different trees they planted. They’d explain to their children the species of tree, how to plant it, care for it, and would even stop to take pictures. Some of these people went on to work for the city,” Sneed smiles.
“Kids in the neighborhood can look up to these people and say they have a job; I could do that. That part is really important.” While horticulture classes and ex-con employment via The Garden Project and Tree Crops were instrumental initiatives, they weren’t enough to influence the younger generations treading down a similar path. Furthermore, charges had evolved from drugs to violence. As holes began to grow in communities, San Franciscan youth needed a plausible alternative to the life of debauchery that was increasingly becoming a norm.
In 1984, Sneed formed the Earth Stewards as an employment opportunity for at-risk youth. It began as a summer program, running Monday through Friday. Approximately 400 boys and girls are accepted each summer after submitting applications.
When camp begins, friendships are forged as dinosaur kale, broccoli, cabbage, collards, carrots, cantaloupes, swiss chard, potatoes, and pumpkins are planted. We’re talking massive amounts of these plants– 23,000 pounds of potatoes and 10-15,000 pumpkins– which are given out to nearby schools each year. A select group of the students in the program are also able to maintain their employment throughout the school year, wherein they can care for the farm on the weekends.
Children and adults are able to work out their problems in real time as the scent of lavender and other aromatherapy herbs perfumes the air. “There’s a college on the other side of that hill called Skyline where people are going places with their life,” Sneed explains. “On this side of the hill kids aren’t going to school, and they end up here [in jail]. In order to get past some of the barriers in life you need an education and you need work experience. We can help with clothes, books, and a college savings by employing students who are attending school.”
The Garden Project property is 250 acres, a large portion of which is covered in cypress trees. 10 acres are fenced off to prevent deer and other critters from enjoying the farms tasty, organic treats. Greenhouses make up an addition five or six acres. Students, meanwhile, can snack on fresh watermelon (grown on site) and attend classes touching on topics like gender, family planning, literature, math, and science– all of which have an environmental spin.
“These kids are not raised learning how to help others. It’s more like how am I going to survive myself?” Sneed remarks. “But in helping others we help ourselves; they get to see that first hand in this program.” Participants learn that by planting beneficials, blue endangered butterflies can be saved; that by growing vegetables, they can feed the homeless, sick, and elderly. They also learn how to grow these vegetables themselves, which can potentially decrease their odds of getting diabetes incurred from a poor diet. “We can make it better for all of us!” Sneed insists, with the same passion and determination that has enabled her to inspire the turning of a new leaf for generations.
“I want The Garden Project to work for what we make, not survive on donations. We do that by securing contracts with landscaping and utility companies. Those contracts allow us to benefit the community and employ thousands of people,” she shares.
“We are proud of this but we can do more…right over that hill is Crystal Springs. They have weeds and they can pay us to take them out. That is how we employ people. Show me somewhere where we can work– then we will employ the mothers and fathers, their teenagers, middle school kids, etc. We will teach people what our parents taught us and that is: to work. That’s how you survive and how you find worth; that applies to anything you’re doing. A dishwasher can still appreciate poetry. It’s perspective.”
There are days when it’s over 100 degrees and the Stewards are climbing canyons to cut high grasses to prevent wildfires. “This is hard work, but is it harder than being chased down by cops? Is it harder than having no future? Cut more,” Sneed will say as she shows them how it’s done, covered in dirt, and laughing.
Helping to prevent wildfires or learning about drought-tolerant plants serves as both knowledge and purpose. Learning how compost can benefit soil and drip-systems can save water, and these are also valuable life skills. But simply getting people outside and connecting them to food and nature is enough. There’s healing to be found in the ability to simply immerse one’s hands in the soil and to do so with purpose– that’s a lesson that we have forgotten to teach to even the seemingly untroubled.
It’s time to beautify schools that look more like Dismaland than Disneyland. With the mindset of beautification, the possibilities are endless– owning your own business, maintaining healthy relationships, and creating healthy habits, like gardening, to process everyday stresses. The Garden Project, Tree Corps, and Earth Stewards are initiatives that we can spread worldwide simply by sharing their stories and seeing how they can be applied to our own communities. That is how we bring the garden into peoples’ lives, and it’s a process that begins today.