Can milk, not jails, drive NY economy?

Members of Milk Not Jails present the group's views at church in Brooklyn. (Photo from Milk Not Jails/Facebook)

Dairy farmers in upstate New York produce a lot of milk. Last year, enough to pour into nearly 2 billion bowls of your favorite breakfast cereal.

But don’t let the volume fool you. The cheese, yogurt and milk business in New York has been suffering for decades. Since 1989, dairy farmers have been caught up in foreclosure scares, millions of dollars in revenue losses and herd buyout programs. The state declared a dairy industry crisis in 2010.

Over those same decades, the rural countryside here has seen growth — from prisons, and hefty state spending on incarceration. Over the barbed-wire fence, the prison population has been strong.

That stark contrast is at the heart of Milk Not Jails, a grass-roots effort to promote agriculture as New York’s primary economic development plan — instead of criminal justice.

Milk Not Jails founder Lauren Melodia argues that when a prison closes, millions of dollars are saved, but when farms shut the barn door, it’s not good for anyone.

Melodia, who was upstate on a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2009, came upon dairy almost by accident.

“I was living in this prison town, and at the same time, the dairy industry was in a lot of turmoil. I didn’t realize that dairy was such a big part of upstate New York’s economy,” Melodia said. “We thought this [dairy] might be the perfect ally in trying to build a different economy in upstate New York, and shift some of the economic dependency away from the prison system, so we can really start talking about prison reform.”

Melodia said she can’t close prisons, or even attempt to reform the entire system. Instead, her work seeks to take the heat off the issue, and get people thinking differently. It may be unconventional, but an answer can be found in rallying farmers, ex-convicts, consumers, business owners and other advocates around a common goal. Promote regional dairy production and delivery to New York City, and gain a politically active base of supporters who will endorse the Milk Not Jails policy agenda, released this month.

These days, popular sentiment from California to the Empire State seems to be on her side. The prison system in New York, once widely known as an economic godsend, is now generally regarded as something undesirable: “The Prison-Industrial Complex.”The dwindling faith in prisons has reached top political exposure, too. In his 2011 State of the State address, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo commented: “An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs.” Several prisons in upstate New York have been closed since then.

In the ongoing discussion on prison reform, the question of what works hasn’t really been answered yet. The prison building trend is only recent history, and a practical solution isn’t out there yet. That’s according to Washington State University sociologist Gregory Hooks, who has published research on the impact of prisons on social and economic development. One of Hooks’ overall findings shows prisons have substantially negative impacts on jobs.

Hooks said upstate New York should’ve opted for community colleges. That way, the center of town would be a school, not a prison. A college would have the initial job boost from construction, and a lifetime of locally grown opportunities.

“If I’m a state senator, I don’t have time to digest the social science that says prisons don’t create jobs,” Hooks said. “I’ve got a lot people telling me that that’s not true anyway. I’ve got a lot of people who want a job, I’ve got a slick presentation from private prison company or from the state level — who am I going to believe?”

Perhaps farms, in this case, are like community colleges, in that they offer an alternative.

 “Even if people in the end decide that dairy is not the solution, or agriculture is not the solution, I think it helps to get people to think about alternatives,” he said. “It is no small task to get people to think about an option that is different.”

That was Melodia’s first stumbling block went it came time to reach out to dairy farmers. 

“It’s very hard to organize farmers, they are committed to their work, they aren’t always on email, and they don’t read action alerts,” Melodia said. “They say, ‘yeah, we agree with you, but how does this apply to me?’”

The key was convincing farmers that a partnership with Milk Not Jails meant new customers. Melodia found most of the farmers who were desperate for a way into the New York City market also desired fewer prisons in their communities.

“What we’re trying to demonstrate to them is that there are urban consumers who want to support their company, who want to support your farm, so this is a great way to market to those people,” she said. “Farmers who sign on to our policy agenda will get our help in selling their milk to a new sales and network. There’s a ton of neighborhood businesses who want access to local and regional products.”

Milk Not Jails now has a refrigerated truck, over 100 responses that contributed to its eight-point policy agenda and, likely by this summer, three farmers who have agreed to ship their products with the Milk Not Jails label.

On another front, the Milk Not Jails campaign wants to help formerly incarcerated men and women re-enter the job market by employing them to drive the truck filled with local milk to urban areas.

But Milk Not Jails has already made a difference in the life of one ex-con: Tychist Baker, who spent seven years in different prisons throughout New York. Baker said before jail, he didn’t care about living, and now that he’s out, he does. He has two kids, and he raises them on government assistance and odd jobs.  

“Now that I know about milk, I know what to feed my children, I know what to look for, and I know what it does to my body,” said Baker, who met Melodia in 2007, and eventually became a co-organizer of Milk Not Jails. He describes his role as education, community and unity.

“I met Lauren, and she was explaining to me about this Milk Not Jails thing and I thought ‘white girl, and I’ve heard it all before…’ but then I started to be a part of it,” Baker said. “I’ve traveled with her, and went to prisons that I actually came out of and gave presentations. And I’ve been able to bring individuals from here, from my urban community, what they call ghettos, and bring them up there to see a totally different world without having to take a prison ride to see it.”