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Berkshire Education and Correction Services aquaponics lab steps up to help feed the community

What do you do with nearly 1,700 heads of lettuce in the middle of a health pandemic? You donate them.

Pittsfield — The Berkshire Education and Correction Services aquaponics training facility at the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and House of Correction was getting ready to harvest its very first crop of lettuce when the county was crippled by the COVID-19 crisis.

What do you do with nearly 1,700 heads of lettuce in the middle of a health pandemic? You donate them.

Thanks to the efforts of Robin McGraw, deputy sheriff and president of Berkshire Education and Correction Services, Mark Lefenfeld of Berkshire Bounty, Brenda Petell of Berkshire United Way and BUW volunteer Nina Garlington, all of the lettuce was distributed among various organizations throughout Berkshire County over the course of several days.

It took three years of designing, building and finally planting the first seeds to yield the first crop. “When I finally held this lettuce in my hand, I said ‘I did it.’ And what really made me smile was that we were able to give it all to those that truly needed it and quickly,” said McGraw, a deputy with the sheriff’s office for six years.

According to Petell, between March 18 and March 24, 1,040 heads went to the South Congregational Church in Pittsfield; in Great Barrington, 280 to Berkshire South WIC, and 60 each to Claire Teague Senior Center and the People’s Pantry; and 250 among Adams Council on Aging, the Friendship Food Pantry in North Adams, and the Williamstown Food Pantry at Saints Patrick and Raphael Parish Food Pantry. McGraw added that First Church in Pittsfield separately distributed 100 heads of lettuce. Berkshire Bounty will be distributing another 600 heads in the next week.

Mark Lefenfeld of Berkshire Bounty loads up a van with lettuce from the Berkshire Education and Correction Services’ aquaponics training facility in preparation to distribute it throughout Berkshire County. Photo: James Sylvia/West Tenth Media

“This was an unbelievable contribution in response to an immediate need in our community for food. Berkshire United Way was honored to work with Robin and Mark to make sure every last head of lettuce was distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the county. Ensuring children and families have access to healthy, local food is more critical than ever during this public health crisis,” said Candace Winkler, BUW CEO and president.

The plan right now is to continue to distribute lettuce to “those who truly need healthy food,” said McGraw.

According to McGraw, four years ago on a plane, Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction Superintendent John Quinn struck up a conversation with a teacher who started an aquaponics program at a juvenile detention facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. Quinn asked McGraw to facilitate a similar program, so, working collaboratively with 100 Gardens, the organization that oversees several aquaponics programs, he made it happen.

He worked with the nonprofit arm of the sheriff’s office to raise money and secure in-kind donations to get the facility built. This aquaponics facility is the first one to be built at a correctional facility in all of New England, drawing interest from several sheriffs throughout the state.

There are 300-350 tilapia, each swimming in four grow tanks, and the fish waste provides nutrients that help the lettuce grow. The facility has over 4,000 heads of lettuce floating in a bed, but since seeds are planted in intervals — it takes 45 days from seed to head — the lettuce is at different phases of growth.

McGraw added that the growing facility will be another educational component for the inmates, especially for the high-risk or high-need. The aquaponics facility will allow inmates to be outside, to learn new skills, and to focus on their work ethic and self-esteem. “Knowing you’re feeding someone else is also a cathartic thing,” he said. Inmates will commit to no less than a six-month STEM-focused curriculum run by corrections officers and fellow inmates.

There are still protocols to be put in place and this crisis to get past before the curriculum rolls out, but McGraw sees great potential with this program. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. He credits Sheriff Thomas Bowler and colleagues, his friends and intern Marco Anastasio for their support and collaboration in completing this project.

The facility produces lettuce 24/7, 365 days a year and is completely sustainable and off-the-grid. “Nothing will be wasted,” said McGraw. Beyond this immediate crisis, the plan is to use a portion of the lettuce to feed the inmates and the rest will help those in need.

He also hopes to work with community organizations like Greenagers, Roots Rising and Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, and to possibly expand to other leafy greens like arugula and basil. This could also lead to a good culinary program, McGraw added.

Inmates are often looking for a second or third chance at getting their lives back on track and “this program is the best way to do that,” said McGraw. “It will bring us directly in contact with the community and the community will get to know what’s going on in here.”

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