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SHERIFF DART TO OPEN GREENHOUSE ON GROUNDS OF COUNTY JAIL

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Thursday, May 27, 2010— Almost 20 years after the first garden was planted by non-violent inmates at the Cook County Jail, a program to train those inmates in horticulture, gardening and landscaping skills has expanded to include a 1,500 square foot greenhouse, which will be dedicated Thursday on the jail grounds.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart will open the greenhouse at 2 p.m. Thursday in the recreation area behind 3026 S. California St. Joining him at the opening will be representatives of Chicago restaurants Charlie Trotter’s, The Publican and Ala Carte Restaurants, which have all supported the gardening program and expressed interest in using the produce in their restaurants.

Since 1993, the jail has been offering low-level, non-violent inmates housed with the jail’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention the opportunity to learn job skills they can take with them to improve their employment options upon their release. In that time, the jail’s 14,000 square foot garden has provided more than 50 tons of fresh produce to homeless shelters and other non-profit organizations.

The program started in partnership with the University of Illinois Extension Service, which provides on-site classroom training and hands-on horticulture skills to inmates. Since 2000, more than 200 inmates have received Master Gardener certificates to bolster their employment options. Last year, a record 36 inmates received those certificates and 21 are now enrolled.

Last fall, construction began on the greenhouse, as jail officials used $149,000 of inmate welfare funds – money the jail makes off inmate commissary purchases – to build it and expand the gardening program. That should allow an increase from about 30 participants a year to 110 a year.

Concrete for the greenhouse was donated by Chicago-based Prairie Materials and in April, planting in the greenhouse began. By last week, 390 flats of vegetables, herbs and flowers were growing in the greenhouse. By starting the growing process with seeds in a greenhouse, Dart said the jail expects to save money because they won’t have to purchase transplanted plants for the garden.

Among the plants growing in the greenhouse are 311 flats of vegetables and herbs, including 53 of basil, 25 of mustard greens, 25 more of cucumbers and 20 of carrots. There are 79 flats of flowers, including 30 of sunflowers, 14 of purple picatte and 8 each of vinca and morning glory flats.

Restaurants are particularly interested in micro-greens, which are smaller, high-quality plants like arugula, mustard greens and basil.

The goal is to make the Cook County Jail’s gardening program self-sustaining, so that money generated by the sale of some of the produce can support the gardening program. Dart is now exploring partnerships to begin an entrepreneurship program so participants can learn the necessary skills to start a gardening business of their own.

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