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Whole Foods Stops Sourcing Food From Prison Rehabilitation Programs

After much pushback, Whole Foods announced that they will stop selling products produced using inmate labor through prison-work programs.

One such product is a goat cheese made by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy using milk produced at Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy in partnership with Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI). The mission of CCI is to provide inmates with work, training, and skills to increase their chances of employment after they’re released. Inmate jobs through CCI are voluntary and acquired through a rigorous application process, with only 1,600 out of the 20,000 inmates in the state getting placement, according to the Colorado state auditor. A high school diploma (or GED) is required for these jobs, as well as a good prison record.

Those protesting the Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy question the justness of this CCI program, claiming it’s “exploiting inmates” and “using them for cheap labor.” End Mass Incarceration Houston spearheaded the movement to remove foods sourced by prison labor from Whole Foods. As its founder, Michael Allen, told NPR, “People are incarcerated and then forced to work for pennies on the dollar—compare that to what the products are sold for.”

2012 Barry Staver, www.barrystaver.com

Whole Foods spokesperson Michael Silverman explained that the company supports this program through CCI: “We felt that supporting supplier partners who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet.” But, Silverman says, “we have heard from some shoppers and members of the community that they were uncomfortable with Whole Foods Market’s sourcing products produced with inmate labor.”

It is because of this pushback that Whole Foods made the decision to stop selling products sourced by inmate labor, including tilapia from Quixotic Farming and the goat cheese from Haystack, by April 2016.

In 2012, culture did a piece on Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and the opportunities it provides inmates. This dairy has been in operation since 2008, giving prisoners hope and the skills for a better future. The program has been a great success—providing Haystack high-quality milk for cheesemaking and inmates the ambition and tools for a better future post-prison. Inmates gain skills in animal husbandry, manual labor and basic occupational abilities. But, more than that, “incorporating (animals) into inmate rehabilitation provides them the opportunity become nurturing, patient, and exercise compassion,” explains Kathleen O’Meara, Chief Psychologist of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

2012 Barry Staver, www.barrystaver.com

Colorado Correctional Industries director Steve Smith explains that inmates in these programs are less likely to end up back in prison and that working with animals decreases that chance further. “Ninety-seven percent of inmates are going to be released,” says Smith. “Do we want them to have the tools to be successful, and for them to have vocational credits and a work ethic?”

These rehabilitation programs, such as the one at Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy, are voluntary to participate in, inmates do get paid, and the non-tangible benefits are very evident. John Scaggs, director of sales and marketing at Haystack. tells NPR that he continues to support this inmate rehab program through CCI, but Haystack will start sourcing milk for their cheese from non-inmate dairies so it can still be sold at Whole Foods.

Click here for our original photo essay, and see culture contributing editor Laurel Miller‘s response to earlier criticism here and here.

Marissa Donovan

Marissa Donovan is a former upstate New York girl living in a cheese-centric world. Although cheese is her day one, she doesn’t discriminate, as she adores all food. Similar to what Beyoncé advises, she likes food so much she put a degree on it—she’s a registered dietitian and master’s student in the nutrition communication program at Tufts. When she’s not filling her head with food info, she’s filling her belly with food and, as always, trying to bring up cheese in casual conversation.