The Muskegon YMCA Veggie Van™ has received 3,950 pounds of donated produce from the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) in the past year. Through the Horticulture Program at the MCF, incarcerated individuals gain hands-on experience with gardening and agriculture, and a portion of the produce that is grown gets donated weekly to local organizations working to increase food access, one being the Muskegon YMCA Veggie Van™.

The Horticulture Program at the MCF is led by Horticultural Trades Instructor, Brad Dean. The program is one of two remaining Horticulture programs within the Michigan Department of Corrections. Incarcerated individuals who take part in the vocational education program have the opportunity to work with Mr. Dean in several large garden areas, learning how to raise, fertilize, and harvest produce. There are typically around 15 participants per class, with two class blocks running each day. All participants are involved in vegetable production from early spring to late fall. The program helps incarcerated individuals build valuable life skills as they learn to grow their own food, while also receiving education in produce production and pesticides, which can lead to opportunities for careers in the agricultural and horticultural industries. The program also provides participants with a sense of purpose, as they tend to a garden plot, house plant, or actively work to beautify the facility’s landscape.

“The inmates in the program gain skills in growing and caring for flowers and vegetables, while being able to beautify their living environment,” but it is also “a way to give back to those in need in the local community,” claims Mr. Dean.

The Horticulture Program helps the Muskegon community as the produce that is grown gets donated to local food distribution organizations, such as the Muskegon YMCA Veggie Van™. In 2023, the van received almost 4,000 pounds, of a total of 12,875 pounds donated by the facility. Donations of assorted produce included tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, and more. The Veggie Van™ increases access to affordable, fresh, local produce for seniors and families living in low-food access neighborhoods in Muskegon County. Operating in a food desert, access is limited to fresh local produce. Coupled with inadequate transportation, many Muskegon area seniors struggle to make healthy choices when it comes to food and nutrition. The YMCA Veggie Van™ acts as a year-round mobile farmers market as it makes weekly stops to community centers, workplaces, senior centers and apartment complexes in low-food access neighborhoods to distribute fresh, low-cost produce. The donations from the Horticulture Program at the MCF offer a huge support to the Veggie Van™, ultimately increasing the amount of produce the Y is able to distribute throughout Muskegon County. 

“We’re endlessly grateful for our partnership with the Muskegon Correctional Facility,” says Amy Woodring, Veggie Van™ Lead at the Muskegon Y. “The produce is always of excellent quality and our seniors appreciate the smaller quantities they can purchase to make single-serving meals. The generosity of the Horticulture Program allows us to keep our costs low, making it easier for Muskegon County residents to make healthy eating choices. Dean and those in his program are truly a blessing to this community, and it goes to show that even if you are incarcerated you are still able to do good in this world.”

Readers can learn more about the Veggie Van™ and find its schedule at The Veggie Van™ is run in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.