Missoula County eyes grant for community garden at detention center

If the stars align and a national foundation looks kindly on Missoula County’s application, select inmates at the local detention center could begin producing food in a community garden.

While that’s a lot of ifs, the county on Thursday agreed to send a letter to the Rapoport Foundation expressing interest in launching the community farming program at the jail. If the foundation likes the idea, it could invite the county to formally apply.

“This is just a letter of inquiry,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “If they look positively on this, they’ll invite us to submit a proposal. It’s super competitive. This is just a first step.”

The concept of a community farm at the jail represents a broad collaboration of partners, including the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the sheriff’s department and Garden City Harvest.

As envisioned, a core group of inmate farmers would work the garden from February through October. The inmates would be selected “based on their desire to participate, suitability, and length of stay.”

Other inmates could also participate, along with local volunteers.

“Research shows that gardening projects help reduce recidivism,” said Kristen Jordan of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. “We’re asking for $200,000 over three years to launch the farming program on the grounds of the detention facility.”

Supporters of the proposal believe a jail farm will teach inmates valuable work skills. The program would be operated in conjunction with Garden City Harvest, which runs a farm where troubled youth work alongside University of Montana students – a program supporters describe as transformative.

“If this was to come to pass, there would be a crew of inmates selected by folks who work at the jail,” Slotnick said. “These kinds of projects inspire community within that group and create a sense of attachment to the work itself.”

According to the county’s letter, the farm will contract with the jail’s kitchen and the Missoula Food Bank to custom grow specific produce, and do it on deadline.

Growing produce on deadline requires problem solving and tasking, even when resources are limited. Doing so would teach the farmers how to meet the needs of a customer, while the food would feed other inmates.

“The inmates would get to experience what it’s like to work throughout a season,” Slotnick said. “They’ll learn to differentiate between individual responsibilities and group responsibilities, and how to make decisions with lots of variables and meet a goal, those sorts of things.”

Slotnick said the county’s letter represents “a request for an invitation to apply” to the program. If the Rapoport Foundation accepts the request, the county will officially apply for the competitive grant.