By Suzanne Boothby
Dairy and jails may seem like an odd combination, but not to Lauren Melodia, founder of Milk Not Jails. Her grassroots campaign is working to end rural New York’s reliance on the prison economy while also promoting the state’s rich agricultural tradition.
It operates a dairy marketing and distribution co-operative—selling milk, yogurt and butter from upstate farms direct to urban consumers through city-based buying clubs and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-up sites. The group’s hand-painted pink truck, driven by formerly incarcerated Kevin Rutledge, delivers both food and a political message.
“The connection we see is that both the prison system and the food system are designed to impact rural and urban communities,” Melodia said. “But the prison industry creates a really dysfunctional relationship between the two at the moment.”
Melodia came up with the idea when she worked as a political organizer in a prison town in upstate New York.
“Every family came upstate only to visit people in prison,” Melodia said. “When I started to look at public policy, I thought we could shift more if these communities could relate more directly.”
New York looks a lot like other states in the sense that many rural towns hoped that prison construction in the 1980s and 1990s would give a much-needed boost to local economies.
But in recent years, as the U.S. prison population began to tick downward for the first time in decades, prison beds began to sit empty and guarding those beds cost millions each year. In New York, where the inmate population fell even more rapidly that costly situation caused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to close seven of the state’s prisons last year. He said in a statement: “The state's prison system has been too inefficient and too costly with far more capacity than what is needed to secure the state's inmate population and ensure the public's safety.”
Enter to this shifting dynamic the food movement, which has been gaining ground with the growth of farmers’ markets, CSAs and demand from urban consumers for locally produced foods.
Last year, Patty Ritchie, chair of the New York State Senate’s Agriculture Committee noted in her blog: “The rapid growth of Farmers’ Markets across the Empire State is doing a lot more than just bringing outstanding locally grown produce to more people’s tables. It’s helping to grow our state’s economy, creating new jobs, and helping our state’s 35,000 family farms play a greater role in helping to bring about a rebirth in our downtowns.”
Melodia hopes Milk Not Jails’ eight-point policy agenda helps to create a bridge between these issues by arguing for fewer prisons and more farms.
“We were surprised with how many farmers agree with our political analysis, and we’re working to give them economic incentives to get involved,” she said.
So far, Ronnybrook and Hawthorne Valley farms have signed on to the group's political agenda. This growing alliance works to push legislative change for rural and criminal issues including launching an anti-trust investigation of Dean Foods—a Texas-based company with a massive controlling interest in fluid milk distribution; protecting New York’s farmlands; passing the resolution introduced earlier this year to reform marijuana laws; and closing empty prison beds.
Could New York become a model for other states?
“We really want to test this idea in New York state and our hope is that we could easily bring it to California, the No. 1 dairy producer with the nation’s largest prison system, or Wisconsin,” Melodia said.
Suzanne Boothby, author of The After Cancer Diet, is a health and food politics writer for blogs, books and more.