What’s plentiful in upstate New York? Cows and prison inmates, to name a few things.
Reformists in the two communities don’t make natural allies, but organizer Lauren Melodia is trying to do just that.
“I was living in this prison town, and at the same time, the dairy industry was in a lot of turmoil,” Melodia tells The Salt. “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 Melodia formed the non-profit Milk Not Jails. Their aim is to bottle the momentum of the prison reform and local food movements into one potent concoction.
Two years ago, the state declared a dairy crisis as the costs of producing milk rose. And while half the state’s dairy farms dropped off the map, across the way over the barbed-wire fence, the prison population held strong. (Most of New York’s 55,000 inmates are housed upstate.)
Milk Not Jails’ first complaint is that Dean Foods, a powerful food company that controls the majority of milk distribution in the region, has left many small farmers with few options but to sell to them. Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont has called Dean a “milk monopoly.”
So Milk Not Jails is offering farmers another option: Sell their milk directly to buying clubs in New York City.
So where do the prisons and ex-cons come in? Milk Not Jails plans to recruit ex-cons who can’t get a break to drive approved dairy products down to consumers in New York City.
Washington State University sociologist Gregory Hooks says that prisons have not been a great way to create jobs in rural communities. But he’s not sure that Milk Not Jails can solve everyone’s problems.
“Even if people in the end decide that dairy is not the solution, I think it helps to get people to think about alternatives,” he said.
Tychist Baker says Milk Not Jails does just that. He spent seven years in upstate prisons, and now is an organizer with Melodia.
When Milk Not Jails is getting the message out, they run like a street team. Baker says that’s where he comes in with help during presentations they call Ice Cream Socials. The audience eats free ice cream in exchange for listening to Milk Not Jails’ vision of building a new urban-rural relationship based on food.
“I met Lauren [Melodia], 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.”
Melodia’s team is volunteer-based, and for now, low on capital, but there are small signs of success. In May, they’ll ship Ronnybrook Farm Dairy products like milk, yogurt and butter from Ancramdale, N.Y. to several community supported agriculture pick-up sites in New York City. Those products from small-scale, organic farms will feature the the group’s label — a vanilla ice cream cone, bordered by a suggestion: “Milk, Not Jails.”