Julie McLafferty, MA, Project Associate, Policy Research

“It’s no secret that getting your hands into the dirt and helping things grow is healing,” says Ashley Yates, the media director at Planting Justice. Planting Justice, an Oakland-based non-profit, has a simple mission: grow food, grow jobs, grow community. Founders Gavin Rafers and Haleh Zandi created Planting Justice in 2009. Their goals are threefold:

  1. Address structural inequalities embedded in the industrialized food system.
  2. Promote economic justice.
  3. Support community healing in marginalized communities that have been impacted by structural oppression.

Rafers and Zandi are lifelong activists who dreamt of transforming the food system, one garden at a time. Yates notes that the past 6 years have been a time of exponential growth for Planting Justice; they have been able to deliver robust programming, engage with the community, and open multiple physical sites where folks can come and work.

Among Planting Justice’s many community-based food justice programs is their holistic reentry program, which provides in-reach support to jails and prisons for individuals nearing release back into the community. They provide educational training on permaculture, landscaping, and local plant care to San Quentin State Prison and at a few jails and juvenile facilities in the surrounding area. The program teaches trainees about urban gardening and how to grow food for themselves and their community.

Since its inception in 2009, Planting Justice has always employed individuals who have been formerly incarcerated. In 2013, Planting Justice was able to break ground on its first prison vegetable garden in California, at San Quentin.[1] Trainees gathered in the yard of the medium-security unit and filled five newly laid raised beds with compost. They planted vegetables and herbs and were taught to nurture and grow them. When a Planting Justice trainee is released, they know they have a job waiting for them the next day, as well as support to help stabilize the difficult transition back into the community.

Over 35 percent of the Planting Justice staff are formerly incarcerated (including those referred directly post-release). This means individuals get built-in peer support from their new coworkers to help them acclimate back into the community. Yates affectionately refers to this transition as the “prison to PJ [Planting Justice] pipeline.” Upwards of 60 percent of their new employees come from direct referrals from friends and family who see the type of environment that Planting Justice fosters and know their loved ones will flourish in it. Planting Justice is proud to pay living and dignified wages ($17.50/hour), well above California’s minimum wage, providing an incentive for employees to show up every day and avoid things that may jeopardize their success.

Planting Justice also does its best to provide wraparound services to employees. From assisting with driver’s license applications, hosting workshops on financial planning or self-care, helping identify mental health services, or providing support on more complex things, like applying for housing. They offer person-centered care and do everything they can to make the passage from incarceration into the community as smooth as possible. No one who has engaged in the reentry program has returned to prison—an impressive testament to the program’s effectiveness and a stark comparison to California’s 44.6 percent recidivism rate.[2]

Above all else, Planting Justice offers the opportunity to get down and dirty and provide meaningful work to help heal from the trauma of incarceration. “That’s what nature does; it reminds us of how free things are,” former reentry coordinator and program participant Rasheed Lockheart says. “I don’t think you realize how free you are until you’re amongst things that are actually free.”[3]

Planting Justice workers are spread across five programs: food justice education, holistic reentry, the Transform Your Yard (TTY) landscaping team, grassroots canvassing, and urban farms and training centers. The food justice education program activates people most directly impacted by poverty and food injustice to create a more local and sustainable food system. The education program helps students transform underused community spaces into edible gardens and delivers a curriculum centered on healing, using plants as medicine, and acknowledging that food is a human right.[4]

The TTY program provides permaculture landscaping services to private clients who want to build gardens in their backyard and set them up to be community hubs. The TTY program includes on-site consultations, customized designs, full-service permaculture installations, garden coaching, and maintenance.

Some workers are stationed at a nursery or on a farm itself. Rolling River Nursery is a five-acre food forest farm that produces thousands of pounds of food annually for the community. The nursery houses over 1,200 varieties of Certified Organic edible tree crops, the largest and most biodiverse collection in North America, and offers nationwide shipping to interested parties.

As the organization grows, so does the work. In the past few years, Planting Justice has almost doubled its number of employees. They recently opened a four-acre farm and orchard in El Sobrante, California. Three more sites are on the way, including a site in Sacramento and an aquaponic farm three doors down from Rolling River Nursery in Oakland.

To date, Planting Justice has built over 550 edible permaculture gardens and created over 40 green jobs in the food justice movement for people transitioning from incarceration, and that number is only growing. “We don’t do this just because we need a job. We all have deep ties to this mission, and to be able to open all of these new sites, particularly in new communities, is really special,” Yates says.

[1] The Insight Garden Program’s Vegetable Garden at San Quentin State Prison (youtube.com)

[2] Holistic Re-Entry (plantingjustice.org)

[3] Planting Justice’s Prison Abolition Work Starts at the Root (kqed.org)

[4] Food Justice Education (plantingjustice.org)

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