Students at the Vienna High School have started the semester with more access to fresh produce thanks to a partnership with the Dixon Springs Impact Incarceration Program in Pope County.
Hundreds of pounds of green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, radishes, cucumbers and even a few crates of onions have made their way to the Vienna High School cafeteria compliments of Dixon Springs’ garden program.
“It takes more time to prepare fresh food, but it’s much better for the children in the long run,” Betty Saltzman, food service director for Vienna High School, said. “They’re learning to eat better and try something a little bit different.”
Saltzman was busy preparing a cucumber salad Monday morning from a delivery of fresh produce dropped off by Dixon Springs Impact Incarceration Program (IIP) superintendent Jason Henton. Henton said the Impact Incarceration Program at Dixon Springs, which operates like a boot camp and is designed to provide short-term, labor-intensive tasks for inmates, has recently reached out to more communities to offer their services with work that would otherwise go undone or cost the community an expense it cannot afford.
“It’s good for the Illinois Department of Corrections as a whole to have the ability to get the positive release of assisting the communities; giving back to the communities,” Henton said, adding that several inmates and staff members are from the local communities the programs are helping. “So it’s really positive to see the work that is being donated, or giving back, to these areas by the inmate population here.”
Henton said the garden program has doubled its size since he first arrived at Dixon Springs last year. The garden sits adjacent to the boot camp facilities covering approximately three acres with plans to expand it another two acres next year. Most of the gardening is performed by the women inmates who “take a great deal of pride” in developing their “green thumbs,” Henton said. Corrections officer Penny Poole oversees the women working in the garden and was instrumental in expanding the program last year.
“It’s not just playing in the dirt,” Poole said. “Most of our inmates are inner-city kids and have never even seen a garden, let alone work in one.”
Poole said the inmates are learning valuable skills and an appreciation for helping others while working to produce their own food. While Vienna High School is a recipient of the fresh produce, it is not the only facility benefiting from the garden. Dixon Springs IIP delivers produce to schools in Harrisburg, to homeless shelters in the region, to food pantries in Vienna and Golconda and to its own kitchen.
“It touches my heart,” garden participant inmate Lebron said. She has been at Dixon Springs for the past three and half months and took part in planting this year’s harvest. Lebron said this is the first time she has ever worked in a garden and the first time she has ever had fresh vegetables from a garden.
“When we first started it was all dirt and I remember saying, ‘Oh, it will probably make just enough to feed us here,’ but the amount of crates and produce that we’ve seen over the past few months is unbelievable.’”
Lebron said she plans on starting a mini-garden with her daughter when she returns home. She said she enjoys the access to all of the fresh produce but enjoys the cantaloupe the most.
Vienna High School runs a 50 percent free and reduced lunch count, which means, by federal guidelines, that fifty percent of its students receive free or reduced meals, Vienna High School curriculum director Joshua Stafford said.
“The produce that is being provided from the Dixon Springs garden project helps the school in providing good and nutritious meals to all students,” Stafford said. “While it is hard for some to believe, the meals that students receive at school are, for several students, the only nutritious meal that they will have.”
Stafford said the school is also benefiting from several work projects that were performed in the summer to prepare for the coming school year. Dixon Spring’s bootcampers cleaned the busses, painted guardrails and the tennis court, washed walls and desks and cleaned the school grounds.
“Vienna High School and the community are pleased to be working cooperatively with the Dixon Springs Impact Incarceration Program,” Vienna High School superintendent Edwin Shoemate said. “This program has enabled the high school not only to have access to the produce from the Dixon Springs garden, but also has allowed for several manual labor projects to be completed at the school over the summer.”