Youth at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility plant their garden.

By Joe Orlando, CDCR Public Information Officer

This was the first time most of the young women at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility (VYCF) had ever dug their hands in dirt or planted an herb or vegetable.

“Do you know the difference between an annual and a perennial?” Celeste Kelley, the garden educator with The Kitchen Community, asked the group of females. The group oversees the Learning Gardens project at VYCF.

The project is part of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is spreading the message of healthier living to schools and youth correctional facilities throughout the country.

The incarcerated women taking part in the project here at VYCF may not have the experience in building, planting and overseeing a garden, but the girls show a clear desire to learn.

The girls will be planting herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley along with vegetables like onions, tomatoes, and peppers. Mentors with the Kitchen Community will teach the girls how to use gardening tools properly and what it takes to grow your own food.

Kelley asks the girls another question: “Have any of you ever done anything like this before?”

One of the girls answered,” I was a groundskeeper. I do have some experience, and learned something about the basic tools used.”

One of the other female youths said the whole idea of a healthier lifestyle is great for her and her health issues.

“For me, my health affects my life, the onions and the vegetables are good for my diabetes,” she says. “I think it’s important to know what’s inside of you that affects your body now and later on in life.”

VCYF is unique with the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), because there are males and females at the same facility. They’re separated by high fences, and in some cases barbed wire.

The concrete foundation of the garden was laid by the male youth at VYCF. The young men took pride in having a hand in the project and are themselves working on a healthier lifestyle that includes more exercise and better choices for meals and snacks.

One male youth said he and his family never thought about healthy food choices.

“It was all fat and grease, whatever Mom made, but now I’m eating more vegetables…even the donuts now have some fruit in them. I feel like I have more energy, I can tell the difference when we’re playing sports, and eating healthier will make you think clearer.”

Mike Minor, Director of DJJ, traveled to VYCF for the opening of the garden and to encourage the youth in the pursuit of their healthy lifestyle goals.

“This is a unique opportunity for the young people and also for the staff. The Alliance is doing great work in the school systems, now we have a chance to do this in a correctional setting.”

Two of the incarcerated females, said they’re looking forward to nurturing the garden and enjoying the fruits of their labor, and also taking what they learned back to their communities and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Throughout the summer the girls will tend to the garden every day, each taking turns watering, weeding, and helping to nurture the herbs and vegetables. When school starts they’ll work on the garden before and after classes.

VYCF administrators say this is great for the girls’ rehabilitation. It teaches them to take responsibility in a project, to see it through from seed to table, and also what it means to take ownership of something.

The best part is all that healthy food they’ll be enjoying all summer long!