Inmates turn to farming to help zoo animals

By: Laura Newell Telegraph Staff Writer
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City staff layoffs prompted officials with California State Prison, Sacramento, to hatch a plan for inmates help out local wildlife. The Folsom Zoo Inmate Garden Project was launched this year allowing level-one inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento, to harvest crops on the prison grounds to feed rescued animals at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary in a partnership between the prison, the zoo and Wal-Mart in Folsom. More than 600 pounds of vegetables have been harvested and fed to rescued animals, said Mike York, spokesman for the prison. He said there have been six harvests already. “This is a good project,” York said. “It benefits the city of Folsom because it’s a win-win project because there are no costs to the city.” At a Folsom Chamber of Commerce meeting, prison Warden Tim Virga learned the Folsom Parks and Recreation department, which manages the zoo, faced significant financial challenges because of the weak economy, York said. Some city personnel have been laid off and city agencies were asked to reduce their expenditures. York said Virga wanted to help and decided that Minimum Support Facility inmates could grow vegetables on prison grounds to help reduce the city’s costs to feed the animals at the zoo. York said a produce wish list was created for the project and the Wal-Mart store in Folsom agreed to supply the institution with all the seed required for the project. Approximately 280 minimum security inmates are available for work assignments in areas such as landscaping, janitorial and building maintenance, York said. The inmates who work in the project come from a weed abatement crew. The project saves funds for the city and there is no cost to the state, York said. “This project has been incorporated into one of their job assignments,” York said. “The project will be ongoing, we are already planning the winter crops.” Jill Lute, Folsom Zoo Sanctuary supervisor, said the zoo sanctuary’s food budget in produce is more than $30,000 because there are such a large variety of animals. Lute said the sanctuary will not know the total savings from the Folsom Zoo Inmate Garden Project until after a yearly budget which includes donations and other produce projects. “Most of the animals at the zoo benefit (from the project),” Lute said. “Even for the carnivores, we use it for enrichment.” The summer crop included sunflowers, zucchini, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, honey boat squash and a variety of peppers, said Joe Beck, lead groundskeeper. Beck said the winter crop will include a variety of leaf lettuces. Lute said that providing healthy, fresh produce to the animals is an important staple in their diet. “Anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves, we won’t take,” Lute said. “We look at good nutrition as a preventative medicine.” She said just like humans, the animals will only eat fresh produce and staff will donate extra food to other facilities. “We try to share the wealth, so we donate left over food to Sacramento Wildlife Care Facilities,” Lute said. “We try to not throw produce away because it’s all good stuff.” Lute said zoo staff picks up new harvests about once a week. “Our goal is to have this be an ongoing project with the prison. We are hoping it will turn into a project including fruit trees, nut trees, everything,” Lute said. “We really try to feed a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables for their health, and for the majority, our animals have long lasting lifespans. These animals are essentially in prisons behind bars ... so their diet is really something the animals look forward to.”