Unique partnership provides fresh produce for thousands of needy Arkansans


Josh Hardin is a fifth-generation farmer and it was his patch of beans — both green and pinto — that a group of 17 inmates from the Arkansas Department of Correction Varner Unit were gleaning Friday morning near Grady.

Gleaning is the practice of hand-gathering what remains of a crop after the primary harvest

“A lot of these guys know somebody who has gone to a food pantry to feed their families and in several cases it is their own families who do so,” Hardin said as the inmates gleaned the peas from his fields.

“I tell them, well now that you’re here, what is your family going to do to feed themselves?” Hardin said. “They realize that they are literally feeding their own families in some cases by doing this work and they work double time trying to get as much done as they can.”

Thousands of hungry families across the state of Arkansas are being treated to fresh produce at their local food pantries thanks to a landmark partnership between the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Arkansas Gleaning Project and the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Now in its third full year, this first-of-its-kind coalition has been responsible for gathering millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables from the fields and orchards of participating growers that would otherwise have been wasted.

ADC spokesman Shea Wilson said the prison system is proud to give back to its neighbors in this way.

“ADC’s participation in the project helps feed the hungry but it also provides an opportunity for inmates to do something positive and to help repay the state for some of the debts owed by their crimes,” Wilson said. “That is equally important.”

Michelle Shope, director of food sourcing and logistics for the AHRA, said the group’s agreement with the ADC has made all the difference.

“We began the gleaning program in 2008 and brought in 150,000 pounds of produce,” Shope said. “We partnered with the ADC in late 2009 and in the 2010 season we were able to bring in 802,000 pounds of produce. We absolutely could not have done this without the participation of the ADC. Our cost per pound to do this is only 2.8 cents.”

Shope said the 2012 harvest brought in 1.2 million pounds of produce from a total of eight farms across Arkansas and that 80 percent of that total was harvested by ADC inmates.

“Our goal is to get to between five and six million pounds per year, so we are 20 percent of the way there,” Shope said. “Arkansas is tied with Mississippi as the state with the highest percentage of food insecurity in the country. One way to do our part to remedy that is to have more healthy foods available for people.”

Shope said more than 800 feeding agencies depend on the work that they do.

“We surveyed clients of these agencies last year and found that 96 percent of them ate more produce thanks to this program,” Shope said. “Out of the survey participants, 86 percent of them said that they had tried new foods and the vast majority of them said that they would be using their SNAP [food stamp] dollars to purchase produce at the grocery store and farmers markets.”

Hardin said that besides being a grower participating in the gleaning program he is also affiliated with the Society of St. Andrew, which is one of the largest gleaning advocacy organizations in the United States.

“In my capacity with the Society I work to bring other growers on board with the program,” Hardin said. “As a participating grower I can tell you firsthand how critical the ADC is to the success of this program in Arkansas. When we are finished with our commercial operations and are ready to turn the crop over to gleaning then time becomes a huge factor. The longer the crop stays in the field the greater danger there is of spoilage so there is no time to try to mobilize a team of volunteers from scratch.”

Hardin said the ADC has gleaning teams at the ready who can be in the fields harvesting the crop very quickly.

“Any of our facilities within a 50 mile radius of a farm in need of help with gleaning have inmates ready to be brought out,” Wilson said. “We sometimes stretch that mileage limit to make sure that the produce is harvested.”

Giving back

Britt Robinson is from West Memphis and nearing the end of his sentence.

“I like helping people and I’ve done farm work all my life,” Robinson said. “I grew up on a farm picking peas so I am glad to be able to do this.”

Robinson said that this is the first year he has participated on the crew doing the gleaning work.

Joshua Scott of Nashville, Ark., is also close to serving his time.

“We’re on the maintenance crew and were asked if we wanted to help with this,” Scott said. “I love it. I have a daughter with Down Syndrome and every two months they have events with the funds going to her school to help those who can’t help themselves. Doing this work out here today reminds me of that. Giving back and helping people out.”

Lt. Jimmy Phillips is one of two ADC officers watching over the work detail.

“Most of these guys are going home soon,” Phillips. “They love doing this work. Sometimes when we’re out clearing brush for a landowner they get fed. Now getting a hamburger from McDonald’s is definitely motivation for them.”

Phillips said that he gets down and works alongside the inmates he is supervising to keep morale up.

“I tell them that I’m not going to ask them to do something that I can’t do,” Phillips said. “I really have to double down sometimes because these guys are in shape. You probably saw I was out there with them picking these beans.”

Phillips said that he has learned over the years that he gets the best work out of his work details when he treats them in a positive manner.

“I used to be old, hard Bud when I started out here but over the years I learned that if I treat them like I would want to be treated then I get the best results,” Phillips said. “I treat them like human beings and it works.”

Jeremy Adams, food sourcing and logistics manager for AHRA, said he would be driving the harvested food to the Arkansas Food Bank in Little Rock to be processed and distributed.

“The Little Rock center is responsible for distributing food to 33 counties south and east of Pulaski County,” Adams said.

Shope said the boxes being used to transport the gleaned produce were donated by Loreal-Maybelline in Little Rock.

“Tommy Short with Loreal came to me to ask if we would be able to use the cardboard boxes that they would otherwise have to throw away,” Shope said. “People don’t normally think about a cosmetics company having something to offer a food bank but their management thought that we could use their discarded boxes and they were right.”