Thursday, December 04, 2014

The hunger that eats the soul

This is the raw interview that was subsequently edited and published in February of 2001
Cathrine Sneed was Special Assistant to Sheriff Michael Hennessey. She founded the San Francisco Jail’s Garden Project. At that time she had worked with prisoners for almost 20 years.

Fred Dodsworth: Why did you start the Garden Project?
Cathrine Sneed: I was a counselor here at the jail, after a couple of years doing legal services work with folks. I discovered the obvious, which is that people were here without educational or employment skills. We needed a way to help people to get those skills. The jail sits on all this land. I got sick and was suppose to die, I had a kidney disease the sometimes kills people and sometimes doesn’t. I got lucky. Sheriff Michael Hennessey felt sorry for me, so really because he thought I was going to kick the bucket and I thought I was going to kick the bucket. I was going to kick the bucket out here (in the garden).
So when I started the program I couldn’t walk, from the disease, so the prisoners would carry me out every day, I was like that for a couple of years. Then I started getting well, but as I started getting well, the prisoners were so into it. Everyday they were ready to go. They were ready to come out here. They didn’t have the right clothes on. They didn’t have jackets. But every day they were like, “Are we going? Are we going? Can we go? Can we go now?” No matter what, no matter the weather, no matter anything, they didn’t care. We didn’t have tools. They didn’t care. They were working the earth with their hands. They dug, they tore out brambles with their hands.
They were so into it. I was like, “Wow.” I’d never seen them into anything. Mostly they had a singular purpose – getting drugs or getting money or the combination. Nothing else, their kids, their families, nothing really phased them. That’s what I had generally seen. Then I learned most of the prisoners were addicts, they had a single purpose, getting drugs. When I saw them sort of get into being out here, I was like, “There’s something more going on here. This is reaching them.” At the risk of sounding like a real, cornball lame-o, it seemed to really be making a difference to them.
Then I started getting well, then I went into remission, then I got a scholarship to go to this school in England, Emerson College, the biodynamic farming school. Then I went to U.C. Santa Cruz’s organic farming course. Then I came back here to work and we decided we would grow a lot of food and give it away. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We also sell to restaurants, Chez Panisse, Black Cat all those guys. Last year we were growing so much stuff, we had enough to sell and enough to give away we were giving it away with the police department in the housing projects. We would set up, honest to god, these farmer’s market stands, these little tables with baskets. Then we would arrive with the police and the people were like, “What the heck is going on?” And we would be handing out the vegetables with the police and they were like, “huh?”, and finally they were like, “Thank you.”
It occurred to me as I saw people really, really into the food, needing the food, being there every time we came, wanting the food, it occurred to me, we’re in San Francisco and there are some seriously hungry people. So we decided to only give the food to people who really need it. So that’s what we’re doing. For instance in only 25 weeks – which is our growing season – with a limited amount of funding, a limited amount of equipment, we grew 9,600 pounds of cabbage which we gave away to a lot of old ladies, and a lot of families, and a lot of people. This year we’re going to ten times that, and that’s just the cabbage. We grow beets, 3000 pounds of potatoes, cool weather vegetables mainly.
In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve asked people, “What were you eating at the time of your arrest?” They say potato chips, hot dogs, McDonalds – with pride. And that’s it. That’s what’s available. That’s what’s sold in the mom and pop stores and it’s not fresh vegetables. “Vegetables? Oh, no… I don’t know how to cook them…” (Mumbling.) Now that we’re handing out fresh vegetables, this one group that we’re handing them out on 24th and Treat Street, Mrs. Alviar, this grandmother runs an after school program, she now has someone teaching, in Spanish, how to cook the vegetables.

Q: Is there a relationship between soil and heart?
A: I think there is. I think there’s a relationship between soil and god. What I see in the people that work here is that they never felt connected to anything. I feel like they get a connection through the soil, through the plants and vegetables that we’re growing to other people, to themselves. I hear them say being out here and their head clears, their heart clears and they can hear and notice that the sky is blue and turns colors. Stuff they’ve never noticed before. They hear the birds. I tell them to try and hear themselves, try and hear what god is trying to tell them. Because in our lives we don’t get a chance to hear what god is trying to tell us. Because we get into our lives, we’re not able to hear it. I think working in the garden you’re able to hear it. If it’s something as simple as grow vegetables, that’s a message that we have to get.

Q: What happens when they leave the garden? When they leave the jail?
A: Well the former prisoners are eligible to be employed here. All the people out in the garden right now are former prisoners.

Q: You don’t have any prisoners working today?
A: No, the prisoners just finished. These are all former prisoners and what they’re doing is a harvest.

Q: Are there any of god’s children out there that you’re not trying to save?
A: (Long silence and evasive answers about planting trees.)

Q: You’re not going to answer are you?
A: (In a quiet mumble.) I’m not trying to save them. The earth saves them. I don’t.

Q: I’ve got another hard question Cathrine.
A: Ok.

Q: Everyone out here is black. Let’s talk about that.
A: The ones that aren’t black are hiding. Really. There’s a Samoan and a Chinese person and they’re both hiding from the camera.

Q: Ok, then everyone out here, except for the Samoan guy and a Chinese guy who are hiding, is black. Let’s talk about that.
A: Don’t you want to wait until we’re in the jail, then we’ll see racism in action. Ok. Yes. (Angrily.) Let’s talk about racism in our society. Well, the thing is, I can’t. I can’t say the reason that everybody in jail here is here is because they’re black. Because I happen to know, having worked with these people for 20 years, yes they are black, yes they have committed crimes. However, I know, when you commit a crime, of course you have to take responsibility for what you’ve done. And I believe in that. What I have a problem with is I know Hunters Point. I know that in Hunters Point, if we take just that one community, there is a limited opportunity for these young, or old, people to make a legal living. People survive. I’m a gardener. I’ve seen plants come up through the sidewalk. (Crying.) Ok, it’s the same thing with people. Living things do what they have to do to survive. These people have done what they’ve done, to survive. To survive they’ve sold drugs. That doesn’t make it right. It’s still wrong. But I know why they were selling drugs. I also know the effect of them selling and using drugs. It has decimated our communities all over this country. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in Hunters Point. If you never, ever… and you have to understand I have been doing this for 20 years. In 20 years I have met Americans, people who are American, who have never, ever seen a paycheck! (Yelling.) Understand. They didn’t know we pay taxes as Americans. How can that be? How can an American not know that! How can you be that removed from a society, to not know that? It’s because you’ve grown up for generations and there’s been no paycheck. There’s been welfare checks. There’s been social security checks. So how can you expect that individual to say, “Ok, I’m going to get a job.” He doesn’t know what job means. What this program does is, we teach them what work is, what jobs are, how to survive in this society. (A long silence.)
That’s one of the hardest conversations I have to have with people when they start here. I have to explain why I have taken taxes out of their paychecks. They don’t understand what taxes are. They get mad at me. They get mad at me because I’ve taken money from their check. I tell I didn’t do it and they say, “Well who’s FICA and why did he do it?” They look at me like I’m crazy. They have no idea and it’s shocking to me.

Q: It seems like a long way to go. To have to put people in jail, so the lucky ones can get into the Garden Project, so they can learn what the answers are. Isn’t there a better and shorter way to do this?
A: Well, I think… I, ah... (Stammering.) We work with these community groups, the people we bring the vegetables to. One of them is Mrs. Alviar, the grandmother in the Mission. Another is a grandmother in Bayview-Hunters Point, Mrs. Middleton. This woman has everyday 200 children in this little place, right next to the West Point projects. You may be aware that in the last couple of years the West Point projects has been mostly known for the amount of shooting that goes on there. Anyway Mrs. Middleton has 200 kids there every day. She scrabbles around and gets people to donate little things. They’re hungry, I know, but for the fact that Mrs. Middleton is feeding them. They’re not going to stay hungry. At some point they’re going to say, “Now wait a minute, what can I do so I’m not hungry?” That’s when they’re going to go to the drug dealers and the drug dealers are going to say, “Do this and this and this and then you’re not going to be hungry anymore. You can buy your own McDonald’s burger.”
What I have learned is that a lot of these young men start on this path because they’re hungry. I know because I have a son who’s 6’2”, if I had not had a job there’s no way I could have fed him. He would have gone to get that food somewhere. Most of the people here didn’t have parents, don’t have parents and here they are.

Q: I’m going to ask the question again, is there a shorter way to teach this lesson?
A: There is. It has to start is the schools. We have to help children succeed in school. One way to help them succeed in school, to make sure while they’re there, to make sure, I don’t think we can concern ourselves with their parents, whether their parents are doing this or that, I don’t care. I know if we feed these kids they’re going to learn and if we don’t feed them, they’re not going to learn. Period. It’s very basic. You go to Bret Harte School and those kids are hungry. A lot of times the only regular food they get is the food that they eat at that school, and it’s horrible. It’s potato chips and apples that are inedible. I ask these people, “How did you get on this path?” “Well my mom wasn’t home and there was no food…” That’s how they get on it. We have to start in schools. We have to help children succeed in schools. We have to find a way to get children nurtured at least in school. We’re not talking about education, we’re talking about feeding them.

The Garden Project, Pier 28, San Francisco, CA 94105


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