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Milk Not Jails Makes Partners Out Of Farmers And Ex-Cons

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.

Building prisons in rural communities was meant to create jobs and boost the local economy. Washington State University sociologist Gregory Hooks says that hasn't worked out so well — but he's not sure that Milk Not Jails will that solve that problem. Even so, "I think it helps to get people to think about alternatives," he said.

Tychist Baker says Milk Not Jails has also helped him think about alternative paths. He spent seven years in upstate prisons, and now is an organizer with Melodia.

When Milk Not Jails is getting the message out, its organizers operate like a street team. Baker says that's where he comes in. For example, during events dubbed "ice cream socials," the audience eats free ice cream while listening to people like Baker lay out 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."

Naudziunas is a reporter for NPR affiliate Harvest Public Media.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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