Beyond iceberg lettuce: breaking down walls with gardening at Iowa women’s prison

January 9, 2018
by Caitlin Szymanski, Program Coordinator

“A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a taste of freedom.” — Nelson Mandela, “A Prisoner in the Garden.”

According to a 2011 Justice Department report, “The Greening of Corrections,” research has shown that prison gardens can create myriad benefits. These can include reduced recidivism rates among participants in prison gardening programs, lower rates of depression and improved mental health for inmates, and cost savings at criminal justice centers as a result of better nutrition and exercise for inmates.

prison garden starts
Vegetable starts in the greenhouse for the prison garden.

It is still too early to successfully track long-term benefits of the production garden program at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. But by many measures, the program had another productive year in 2017. I am grateful to follow in the footsteps of an incredible former Local Foods Program team member Alice (Topaloff) Runde in providing support to this program over the past year.

The prison garden project is a collaboration among the prison staff and inmates, the Local Foods Program, and faculty and students of the ISU Department of Landscape Architecture that began in 2013. You can read more about it in this ISU news story.

8,000 lbs. of produce

Many new women joined the garden crew in 2017 to learn and experience growing food for the first time. The facility’s food service department fed the garden’s fresh produce to more than 600 people, at a cost savings for the facility. The women worked incredibly hard to grow a bounty of food during the hot, dry, and pest-present season. More than 3,400 lbs. of tomatoes, 90 lbs. of garlic, 620 lbs. of green beans, close to 740 lbs. of potatoes, and 370 lbs. of lettuce greens are just a few of the crops that made up the total of 8,000 lbs of fresh produce delivered to the kitchen.

prison garden greens
Bountiful harvest of salad greens.

Many of these crops were started from seed at the facility for the first time this past spring, with the help of grow lights purchased from a grant. This opportunity will help save costs for the program going forward, as well as give the women an opportunity to gain skills in managing seed starts indoors.

But often it is the unmeasured changes that can be just as important. Beyond overall health impacts of increased fresh, nutrient-dense produce available for meals, we’ve heard stories of how the availability of this produce has impacted healthier eating choices and helped dismantle stereotypes around vegetables.

Beyond iceberg

As an example, we were told more items were eaten at the salad bar this season, which featured items from the garden. Food service cooks were inspired to play with new recipes using fresh produce. One such example was making a garlic dressing for the first time. The kitchen staff said that they were inspired by a recipe they had seen at a local steak house. The women loved this dressing and the kitchen had a hard time keeping up with the demand. The popularity of the dressing also led more people to eat items from the salad bar.

Prior to this year, the production garden had not grown salad greens in any large quantity because they were told by the kitchen that the women would not eat leafy greens, only very small amounts of iceberg lettuce. The garden crew decided to experiment with growing salad greens this year, despite this discouragement, and were happy that they did. They were able to grow and harvest more than 360 pounds of beautiful baby salad greens! This is a huge amount, and all of it was consumed.


Through this work, I am most grateful for the reminder that access to growing and eating fresh produce can inspire curiosity, excitement, and the ability to break down stereotypes when we allow it to. But right now, with frigid cold temperatures outside, I am turning my attention to the excitement of next winter, when there will hopefully be a new greenhouse on the property that the women can warm up in, grow produce and crop starts all year round, and gain additional job skills in greenhouse management.

For more information about this program, contact Caitlin at