High Trump officers reward Wilmington farm that hires ex-prisoners
Second Chances Farm wants to take vertical gardening to a new level by offering ex-offenders job opportunity and also fresh vegetables to communities in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood.
Delaware News Journal
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of people expected to recidivate in Delaware.
High-ranking members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet are holding up a Wilmington indoor farm that hires ex-offenders as a national model for using private investment to revitalize the country’s lowest-income neighborhoods.
Second Chances Farm, which began operations in January, is located in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood, a designated Opportunity Zone.
That label was given to 25 low-income Census tracts in Delaware as part of a nationwide Trump administration program that gives investors lucrative tax benefits to sell their assets and pour the earnings into improvement projects in those neighborhoods.
The farm is one such project.
Lettuce grows in a vertical garden prototype used to demonstrate the vision that Ajit George of Second Chances Farm has to build a vertical indoor farm in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood to grow fresh food for the neighborhood and employ ex-offenders. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal)
Founder Ajit George specifically envisioned starting indoor, hydroponic farms in vacant buildings in distressed areas to take advantage of sympathetic investors through the tax program.
BACKGROUND: Company aims to make warehouses into farms in Wilmington. Apply only if you’ve been to prison
Many news outlets including Delaware Online/The News Journal have found instances of the tax program being used to build luxury apartments and hotels in areas that are already seeing an uptick in development. But Second Chances Farm has been praised for living up to the program’s promise.
The warehouse-turned-farm on Bowers Street has seen a slew of visits from federal officials over the past year as hydroponic shelves went up inside and a cohort of employees – most of whom have served some amount of time in federal or state prisons – began harvesting lettuce, basil and micro-greens.
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On Monday, the farm received a visit and endorsement from two Trump Cabinet members, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who called it a “shining example of the really innovative thinking we’re seeing pop up in Opportunity Zones around the country.”
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They touted the success of the tax program and Trump’s signing in 2018 of the bipartisan First Step Act, which calls on officials to increase classes and programs in federal prisons to prepare inmates for release. Barr said the opportunity for ex-inmates to get jobs is “desperately needed.”
Ajit George (right), founder of Second Chances Farm, gives U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson a tour of the Wilmington hydroponic facility on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Photo: Jenna Miller/Delaware News Journal)
Reducing recidivism and providing exiting prisoners better opportunities to become working members of society without the hindrances of their past crimes has also been a stated goal of Delaware officials in recent years.
David Weiss, the top federal prosecutor in Delaware, said of roughly 15,000 people released from prison in the state each year, nearly 70% are expected to re-offend.
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George said the farm has been so successful – despite the coronavirus pandemic sinking the business’ planned produce sales to restaurants – it’s expanding to Philadelphia, where it will also operate in Opportunity Zones.
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson speaks about the effectiveness of opportunity zones during a tour of the Second Chances Farm in Wilmington on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Photo: Jenna Miller/Delaware News Journal)
In Wilmington, the farm so far employs a few dozen ex-offenders in roles ranging from a 16-week, $13-an-hour training program to managing sales or operations. The employees have served time in Delaware and other prisons. Several are from Pennsylvania.
After the initial program, the company pays the farmers $31,000 and benefits for a year of work. Its goal is for employees to become entrepreneurs by owning shares of the farm as it grows.
Employee Gabrielle Newton, who said she served six months in prison, described looking for jobs after pleading guilty to a weapons charge. She said “interview after interview” went well until the background check came back.
“It does something to your pride, your spirit,” she said.
KaLief Ringgold speaks about his experiences at the Second Chances farm in Wilmington during a tour of the facility for Trump administration officials on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Photo: Jenna Miller/Delaware News Journal)
A few months into working at Second Chances Farm, she was promoted to manage the farm’s direct-delivery produce sales.
Another employee, 34-year-old Kalief Ringgold, said he’s spent much of his adult and juvenile life incarcerated and heard about the program through former James T. Vaughn Correctional Center counselor Patricia May, who now works for the farm.
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“The name of this place is second chances, but I really believe that this is my last chance; this may be my only chance to do something good,” Ringgold said. “My friend got killed this morning. If I wasn’t here, I would be there.”
Barr said he was particularly impressed by the farm’s location in Riverside, where the EastSide Charter School operates blocks away, and down the street, an ambitious redevelopment project is in the works to convert distressed public housing units into a mixed-income neighborhood that includes private housing.
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The institutions together are “building up momentum” for revitalizing the area, Barr said.
Second Chances Farm’s Chief Financial Officer Jon Brilliant used the officials’ visit both to praise the tax program and to rebuke the president’s rhetoric about such developments to a room full of Trump officials.
The “suburban housewife” will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge! @foxandfriends@MariaBartiromo
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2020
The president has in recent weeks taken to Twitter to say he would not allow low-income housing to be developed in suburbs.
“When our leaders say we should be afraid of living close to low-income citizens, it undermines everything that Opportunity Zones at their core are set up to try and accomplish,” Brilliant said. “Pushing the false narrative that our cities … are overrun with criminals and thugs who are out to destroy us does not encourage the public to trust that those coming out of prison can be returned safely into our society.”
Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 324-2476.
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