Editor's note: This week we are profiling a few of the wonderful people we met at the 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin last week. More than 1,100 farm to cafeteria movers and shakers gathered for four days of inspiring field trips, workshops, keynotes and more. we are excited to share their stories.
Emily Ling grew up in a small town near Waco, Texas called Lorena, where her grandmother's garden was one of her first encounters with the power of food. She received her undergraduate degree from Baylor, then spent her 20s working with a variety of nonprofits and completing a masters at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. In her studies and early nonprofit work, Emily focused on juvenile justice and criminal justice reform. Working at the ACLU, she became passionate about mass incarceration and thought she would spend her life working on those issues, but the longer Emily lived in Austin the more she became interested in the local food movement and the justice issues involved with healthy eating.
After graduating in 2012, she went to live and work on the Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. The Farm’s name is Greek for "community," and it was started by a pastor in 1942 who wanted to create a place where blacks and whites could live and work together as equals. Getting healthy food to people who need it kept coming up in all of the issues she cared about where she had never seen the importance of food before.
As a place that practiced hospitality, Koinonia welcomed a variety of visitors -- retired couples from other countries, businessmen from big cities, kids from the rural community, even families of immigrants whose loved ones were held at a nearby immigration detention center. As people of all races, classes and cultures ate meals together, Emily noticed how sitting around a table levels the playing field. We all need food.
She came to believe that if we all shared meals with people we don’t necessarily understand, it might go a long way toward helping us accept each other.
Emily returned to Austin in September of 2013 and tried to figure out how all of her interests fit together. First, she started working with Green Gate Farms and fell in love with it.
“You were working hard but you were also laughing constantly – oh and there were some pretty adorable piglets," she says.
After volunteering with Green Gate Farms for several months, Emily started volunteering with the Texas Jail Project as well, and in March she was hired as their project coordinator. The Texas Jail Project is a small non-profit that advocates for the nearly 67,000 people in county jail across Texas. She works to collect the stories of people locked up there and how their experience in jail impacts not only their lives, but their families and communities.
While prisons make all the headlines and get all of what little attention people pay to this issue, county jails are like the emergency room for the criminal justice system. They are often full of poor people who cannot make bail and so stay locked up for weeks or months while they await trial. On average 50-60 percent of people in jail are people who have not been convicted of anything. For many, charges will be dropped or they will be acquitted by a jury of their peers, but until then, they sit in jail.
There are two major issues Emily wants to change:
First: The quality of food is often horrible in jails. In Texas, jail food only has to be "approved by a dietitian," but there are no policies that ensure that the food contains enough nutrients. Most people stuck in jail are poor, and they disproportionally have medical conditions that are exacerbated by an unhealthy diet. Emily suspects this has a huge impact on the cost of healthcare that must be provided to inmates, and she also believes there are links between diet and mental health.
“For people that have been through struggles and trauma, eating poor quality food adds further harm to bodies that are likely already struggling physically and mentally," she says.
Second: Emily is interested in the potential to have more gardens and farms in prisons as therapeutic programming. It is also good skills training, and sustainable agriculture may be a great industry for ex-felons to find work upon their release.
In Texas and the rest of the South, prison labor replaced slave labor for much of the agricultural industry, creating a difficult cultural history around agriculture in prison systems. Many families of color held not working in the fields as a source of pride and evidence of progress, so when talking about the "opportunity" of prison farms, one has to overcome that legacy. It isn’t going to be easy.
Emily’s faith motivates both the food and the criminal justice work she is engaged in. "Christians are called to be good steward of the land, and we are not doing a good job of that,” she says. As for her prison work, “None of us are beyond redemption," Emily says. "Moses and David and Paul were all murderers. But the worst thing they ever did wasn’t the end of the story. It was upon receiving grace that they did their greatest good.”
She argues that we cannot just throw away people in jails and prisons. Unless people have a life sentence, they are coming back to our communities. Prisons have to be about rehabilitation, not just punishment.
She says it takes more care and investment to understand what people have been through and help them rejoin society. It is harder, but that is the work she’s called to.