Incarcerated Oklahoma youth will have new menu options starting this spring thanks to a new partnership between the state's Agriculture Department and Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Fruits and vegetables grown in the expanded gardens and greenhouse facilities at Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh and Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Manitou will be put on the menu as soon as they are harvested, said Paula Christiansen, spokesman for the state Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Watermelon, tomatoes, okra, peppers, onions and radishes were among foods planted at each of the facilities earlier this month. The program should help juvenile offenders stay healthy while in state custody and also save the department food costs, Christiansen said.
Gardening was started at each site last year, she said, but the Agriculture Department was able to help the juvenile office secure a federal-state grant this year that supported its expansion.
“Now we're taking that same idea and we're expanding on it,” Christiansen said. “Because there was a change in the child nutrition law, the kids can now go from start to finish and really be involved in and eat the vegetables that they grew.”
Micah Anderson, with the state Agriculture Department's plasticulture program, visited the two facilities in early April and installed a drip irrigation system beneath plastic tarps tied tight over tilled earth.
Wrapping growing operations with plastic can help overcome environmental challenges like drought because the plastic helps retain moisture when it would normally evaporate, Anderson said. It also creates less water waste, he said.
“And the plastic also keeps weeds out so you don't have to do much chopping,” he said. “This will give them a little more time and control.”
Christiansen said her office also is reaching out to farmers in each area to get them involved in the program by sharing their experiences and offering their expertise.
By next year, she said, the department hopes to develop horticulture into the facilities' science curriculum.
It might also be a good fit for a marketing or small business curriculum, Christiansen said, “So that when they go back to the community, they're going back to the community and not to us.”
Most of the juveniles sentenced to Office of Juvenile Affairs are from Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, she said, and have no experience with farms.