The commercial harvest had ended at Lakeside Orchards in Manchester on a recent morning, but that didn’t deter Terrence Wigglesworth and Michael Thomas, inmates at Kennebec County jail, from picking apples there as part of a project that’s meant to divert uneaten produce to those who need it in southern Kennebec County.

Both Wigglesworth — who has a daughter — and Thomas — who has a son — went apple-picking with their children prior to their time in jail. But neither had spent time harvesting large volumes of fruit before they joined a small group of inmates that performs odd jobs at community centers, farms and other spots around the county.

At the Manchester orchard, the sky was clear and the temperature was pushing 75 degrees as Wigglesworth, Thomas, two other inmates and corrections officer Mike Gagnon collectively harvested more than 3,000 pounds of tart, red apples. They gingerly dumped the fruit into the back of a trailer, trying to minimize bruising, then dispersed the bounty to various food pantries around Augusta.

The process of redirecting unused crops to those with limited access to fresh produce is known as “gleaning.”

The goal of such work is to cut down on regional food waste while making fresher, more nutritious ingredients available to needy Mainers, said Renee Page, assistant director of Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, a public health group that has partnered with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and the jail to take inmates to places such as Lakeside Orchards.

The group has received two $50,000 grants for the gleaning project from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, a group that attempts to make fresh food more accessible to families across New England.

None of the apples the inmates harvested would be going to the jail, but they did have a chance to snack on them throughout the day.

“They’re better than what we eat in jail,” said Thomas, 21, who is from Fairfield. He was standing on a ladder and extending a picker basket into the branches. The food in jail, Thomas went on, “ain’t like Grandma made it.”

Wigglesworth, a 24-year-old from Gardiner, agreed, then added, “He put it lightly.”

Through the gleaning project, the fruit and the vegetables the inmates harvest across the region are donated to organizations such as Faith Works Community Outreach and Chrysalis Place, which run food pantries in Augusta and Gardiner.

The grant money from Harvard Pilgrim also has allowed Healthy Communities to hire a nutritional educator to instruct pantry clients about cooking and incorporating fresh, nutritious ingredients into their diet, Page said.

Fruit and vegetables can be more expensive and perishable than food pantry staples such as pasta, said Karen Voci, president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, who visited the Manchester orchard while the inmates were there. So donating fresh produce “is a game changer for food banks” that have trouble affording it, she said.

About 14 percent of American households and 16 percent of Maine households are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious food, according to federal figures. Twenty-four percent of Maine children are food insecure, said Jeffrey Sedlack, associate medical director in Maine for Harvard Pilgrim.

That lack of nutritious food has contributed to the state’s obesity epidemic, Sedlack added.

Thirty percent of Maine adults are obese, according to a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the highest obesity rate in New England and the 24th-highest in the nation.

Harvard Pilgrim has awarded similar grants to groups around New England and hired independent analysts to track how much is harvested and how many clients take advantage of the gleaned produce.

“We’re trying to see which strategies can increase the volume and the number of repeat customers,” Voci said.

In Kennebec County, another goal of the partnership between the jail and Healthy Communities is to give inmates the opportunity to learn gardening skills, get outside, contribute to the community and stay active, said Gagnon, a corrections officer.

The jail runs a 5-acre farm on Cony Road in Augusta, and for the last 15 years, Gagnon has overseen a program that allows inmates to grow produce and learn gardening skills. Hundreds of inmates have participated in the program, which is called Kennebec’s Restorative Community Harvest. A day before the inmates harvested apples in Manchester, Gagnon said, he was teaching them about covering crops.

As Gagnon spoke, he received a message on his phone about an opportunity to harvest carrots in Wayne that would be available for inmates later in the week.

To qualify for the service crews, inmates must have been sentenced and determined not to be violent or a flight risk. They earn one day off their sentence for each 16 hours of work.

“Instead of sitting in a jail, they’re out on a day like this,” Gagnon said. “They earn time off their sentences. They can feel better about themselves. They’re learning new skills.”

Wigglesworth began his sentence two weeks ago for conviction on a charge of domestic violence assault — a charge he disputes. He’s supposed to get out in January, he said, but he appreciates the opportunity to get outdoors before then and earn time off. Without that opportunity, Wigglesworth said, some inmates start to get agitated.

“Some of them are like parrots locked up in a cage,” he said. “They walk back and forth, bang on their cages. It’s better to get out.”

Thomas, who received a six-month sentence for operating without a license, called the work crew “an excellent program” and said he appreciates giving back to the community while also learning new skills.

His sentence was originally set to end in February, Thomas said, but with the time off he has earned, he now predicts he’ll be out by early December, meaning he’ll be able to spend the holidays with his 2-year-old son.

If it weren’t for the program, Thomas said, “I would have missed Christmas.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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