Mustard Seed Project rehabilitates former inmates through community farming

For the women of the Mustard Seed Project, a part of the the farm-to-table philosophy is more than a means of sustainable farming, it’s a means of sustainably living free of substance abuse and the threat of re-entering the prison system.

“As an organization, what we do is we practice horticulture therapy. It’s creating food forests and healing gardens to help our participants restore trust in themselves to make positive things,” said Maggie Pons, a horticulture therapist and program director of the Mustard Seed Project.

The community program at Agape Family Ministries, a residential health care facility in South Dade, aims to rehabilitate former inmates by teaching them to grow and consume healthy foods. It began as a pilot program in 2013 between Urban GreenWorks and Soroptimist Coral Gables with six participants and has since grown to support up to 176 women a year.

Using the tenets of urban farming, the project teaches the program’s participants to uproot and weed out destructive behaviors, and nurture a new way of life through a closer relationship with the environment.

How does horticulture therapy work?

“We’re teaching these women how to plant, how to grow, how to care take of edible gardens, create food forests, and that way they become self-sufficient,” said Pons. “They sell the fruits and vegetables and plants they grow at farmers markets, so we’re helping create jobs and finding new ways to add value to the organization, which keeps growing.

“I deal with a very painful part of society. The women we’re working with have been used and abused, have been though human trafficking, sex trafficking — all things that would make it hard for them to incorporate themselves back into society. We help them do that by getting them comfortable with getting outside and working in food forests and gardens.

“Some people don’t want to work in the field of agriculture, but when they’re responsible and attend to the program, we’re also able to write a letter of recommendation because we see them willing to enter a new phase in life. Teaching them healthier ways to eating and holistic living through farming teaches them to reap the benefits of what they sow.”

How has the practice of urban farming translated into healthier, holistic living?

“For example, one of my ladies has high blood pressure — something a lot of participants really struggle with since they do not want to go back on medications out of concern it’s going to trigger them — so she’s going to start eating fava beans, which naturally helps regulate blood pressure,” Pons said. “We encourage our participants to eat properly and make healthier choices rather than resort to taking strong painkillers, and in that way they begin to feel better. and not depend on medicine or fall back into addictions.”

What does the success of the program look like?

“A lot of them choose to keep in touch with me. They tell me the program gave them hope. We give them an opportunity to believe in life again because they see life grow. After planting and nurturing seeds, they actually begin to believe in themselves again and that they can plant new way of living and being,” she said.

The Mustard Seed Project maintains two farms, and grows a variety of fruits and vegetables including spinach, kale, swiss chard, and papaya, in addition to medicinal and culinary herbs and oils.

Pons and participants from the program will be sharing their stories and experiences applying the farm-to-table philosophy to the road to recovery Saturday, April 29 at MKT, 2100 N. Miami Ave., a socially conscious marketplace and by bazbaz concept located in Wynwood. Local restaurants and food vendors will also be serving homemade dishes inspired by fresh produce grown by the project and Slow Food Miami.

By The New Tropic Creative Studio
The WhereBy.Us Creative Studio helps clients big and small engage locals, through campaigns that use creative marketing, storytelling, events, and activations to build community, conversation, and impact.