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An Inside Look: Aquaponics Class at SF County Jail

“This is the class that goes outside, right?” asked one student on the first day of Tom Bassford’s Aquaponics class at San Bruno County Jail, also known as CJ5. It was the first semester of three since its inception, where shortly beforehand, the Ourfoods team converted a dilapidated hybrid of a basketball court and a neglected garden devoid of life into a functioning Aquaponic system upon which Tom was to base his course. As we came to find out, the symbolic nature of the build came to stand as a microcosm for the course itself.

After some theoretical classroom learning about the science and engineering of the system, Tom stepped outside with his first class, a group of 21 students – one of which had not had fresh air in two years, his eyes wide open to another world that this class made available to him; a world whose very fundamentals he was about to learn to collaborate with, while making progress to earn his GED in the classroom.

“In jail, people have a lot of preconceived notions about the way things are – like it’s dangerous, rough, depressing. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our program has value because we give worthwhile job skills while also functioning as a therapeutic tool. I mean caring for plants, animals (fish), and soil is incredibly healing. The students quickly come to enjoy the program. I’ve had so many incredibly talented, intelligent, and kind people come through my class.” Tom noted that leaders emerged in the program, colloquially self-named Original Gardeners, or OG’s, who became mentors for the newer and younger students – in the garden and in life – helping to reinforce these values throughout the course.

“It’s amazing to see the transformation”, notes Tom, referring again to the preconceived notions about who the inmates are as people. “You can work with some of the biggest guys in there, and while they may seem rough around the edges, once they get out playing with worms and fish, seeing how their plants grow, something clicks and you realize why you’re doing what you’re doing”. Like Aquaponics itself, a system designed to mitigate toxicity in the conventional practice of aquaculture and hydroponics by combining them, this program is taking something toxic and turning it into something productive.

This week Tom is giving a small business workshop where students can start to think proactively about their next steps after they serve their sentence. This is where Ourfoods hopes to play a role. In “Phase Two” of a continued partnership with Hunters Point Family, students who finish the program will train and teach the community about Aquaponics through a post-release, workforce development program, eventually leading to a commercially viable operation that provides the local area with fresh produce.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the inmates of the class were treated to a meal not often found behind bars... farm fresh produce picked with their own hands.

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