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A Garden of Freedom for the Women of Crossroads

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This story has been published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.Crossroads six-month transition program for newly released California inmates is not your typical halfway house.

The women of Crossroads have spent significant time behind bars -- for some, nearly half a lifetime. In prison, they endured long lines at the chow hall, strict dining schedules, and severely limited food options. The only glimpse of home-style cooking came from crafty yet dangerous handmade utensils known as "stingers," to make hot food in their cells.

Now they're on the outside, and have access to countless fruits, vegetables, and herbs in Crossroads' very own backyard.

Tucked away behind two seemingly ordinary homes in Claremont are elaborate gardens -- including a converted pool -- full of organic strawberries, melons, herbs, and even chickens, all tended by the Crossroads program residents. Professor Nancy Neiman Auerbach teaches politics at Scripps College, and developed the Crossroads gardening and culinary program over four years ago. She wanted to give her students a sense of community, and simultaneously equip the Crossroads women with new skills, independence, dignity, and a support system.

The women of Crossroads find peace and purpose in the necessary tasks like hand watering, pulling weeds, and planting seeds. "Even if it's 100 degrees, we're happy to do it because, really, this is all to take care of us. It also teaches us how to garden and how important it is to have pure things," says Mary Farrar, a Crossroads resident who recently discovered her green thumb. She's learned to choose fresh versions of the vegetables that would usually come frozen or in a can. "We always have fresh green salad every night of the week," she says.

Many of the Crossroads women work during the day as they get acclimated back into society, so a majority of the gardening happens on the weekend. Each Saturday morning, Crossroads opens its doors to volunteers for community gardening sessions. Monday evenings are busy as well. During the spring and fall semesters, interns from Scripps College and Cal Poly Pomona work with the women to create Meatless Monday dishes made from donated produce and ingredients from the backyard.

To get even more use out of their garden greenery, the women make a variety of jams, marmalades, and herb mixes. Professor Auerbach recognized the popularity of these goods and helped launch Crossroads' successful social enterprise, Fallen Fruit From Rising Women. Now the fruit of their labor funds other Crossroads programs including field trips and workshops for the residents. Shoppers can find their seasonal goodies at the Claremont Farmers Market, Cheese Cave, Good Eggs, and the gift shops at Huntington Library and Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden.

Crossroads isn't the only organization using gardens for good. Here are a few others to check out in Southern California:

Homeboy Industries
Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 1988 by Father Greg Boyle, this organization gives former gang members and previously incarcerated men and women an opportunity to rebuild their lives through job training, counseling and even tattoo removal. Homeboy Industries has six social enterprises including a café and catering program that teaches culinary skills, urban farming, restaurant hosting and serving. Homeboy foods, pastries and merchandise can be purchased online, at farmers' markets and at its headquarters in Los Angeles.

Archi's Acres
Escondido, CA

Archi's Acres teaches sustainable agriculture to transitional and active duty servicemen and women, veterans and civilians. Find their popular living basil, as well as avocado, kale, lemons, limes, and more at the Hillcrest Farmers' Market on Sundays from 9am-2pm.

International Rescue Committee
San Diego, CA

IRC's New Roots program helps refugees rebuild their lives through community gardening, nutrition education, and farmer training. Locally grown produce and specialty foods can be found at the Downtown El Cajon Farmers' market.

ABC Hopes
Orange, CA

Dedicated to empowering individuals with Down syndrome, ABC Hopes develops the educational and social skills of its participants by training them to manage produce stands. Find their locally grown produce at the farmers' markets in Corona and Downtown Anaheim.

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