Milk Not Jails promotes dairies, opens minds, helps ex-offenders

Milk Not Jails plans to expand its line to add more items like ice cream and yogurt.

In a unique New York endeavor, probably the only one of its type in the country, an organization known as Milk Not Jails is working to develop the dairy industry as an alternative to the prison economy as a means of rural economic development. It’s also spreading the word about problems in the criminal justice system and alerting people about job opportunities for ex-offenders.

A reliance on the prison industry by towns in upstate New York dates to the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, a prison-building boom spread throughout rural New York state, convincing some communities that hosting correctional facilities would improve local economies. But with prison populations decreasing – thanks to a variety of initiatives including diversion to treatment and other programs and a scaling back of drug sentencing – that idea may not be working as well as originally intended.

The dairy industry, on the other hand, has a more sustainable economic future. There are nearly 6,000 dairy farms in New York State, mostly family owned with an average herd size, according to Cornell University Cooperative Extension, of 113 cows.

Milk Not Jails began two years ago, after founder Lauren Melodia, a former community organizer, spent a year in a prison town in upstate New York. She knew nothing about milk but was convinced that it could be an economic alternative to incarcerating prisoners, 75 percent of whom come from seven neighborhoods in New York City. Instead of shipping prisoners out of the city, her dream was to ship milk into the boroughs and create a new economic model while, at the same time, raising people’s awareness of the state’s prison system and helping ex-offenders find employment.

It is, at this point, a nearly all-volunteer organization – except for one paid employee, the truck driver, an ex-offender – with a core group of about 20 people. Members get together for monthly meetings, and six working groups concentrate on different areas that range from policy and chapter development to fundraising and marketing.

The foundation of Milk Not Jails, however, is to market milk products, raise consciousness about incarceration issues and ultimately help ex-offenders find jobs.

“We began with CSAs,” Melodia says. (Community Supported Agriculture is a market model whereby people receive delivery of produce and occasionally meat and now milk from a specific farm or group of farms.) “It’s a great place to start, because the CSA members care about where their food comes from. We’re working really hard to get into the food coops as well as small independent grocery stores and the university system.”

Milk Not Jails now buys from two farms and is looking for more producers. Volunteers made a list of 250 farms that they will reach out to in order to expand the network. The organization currently distributes to 15 CSAs in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, along with office buying clubs in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Melodia is also hoping to widen the organization’s product line to include items like ice cream and yogurt, so it can sell to day care and other facilities.

Beyond selling milk, Melodia says, the organization is a way to help ex-offenders. Wherever the truck appears and wherever the volunteers go, they talk about the issues and opportunities for ex-offenders. “We’re bringing new people into the conversation about criminal justice reform,” she says. “And we’re helping to spread the word about job placement and training programs in New York City for formerly incarcerated individuals.”

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