Growing Food AND Changing the World : Cathy Sneed turns dumps into gardens and criminals into gardeners


“A man might look at a fallow field and know, and see in his mind that his own bending back and his own straining arms would bring the cabbages into the light, and the golden eating corn, the turnips and carrots.

“And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat could look at the fallow fields . . . and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children.”

--John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”

When Cathy Sneed was in the hospital, a friend brought her “The Grapes of Wrath.” She had never had any experience of growing things. She had been a teen-age mother, a high school dropout, a welfare recipient who managed to get through college. Now she was a counselor with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.


She was still a young woman. And she was dying.

She worried about what would happen to her two children. She worried about what would become of the prisoners that she counseled. But as she read the book, she began to think about the farm.

When the San Bruno jail was built in the ‘30s, there was a working farm within its walls. Over the years it had been abandoned--prisoners no longer knew how to till the land--and now it was nothing but a dump. “We have to get the farm working again,” she said to her boss as he sat by her hospital bedside.

“If you get out of here,” he said, to soothe her, “we will.”


It was an easy promise to make: Everybody expected Cathy Sneed to die. Two weeks later the doctors admitted defeat and sent her home to do it. She didn’t.

“My kidneys weren’t functioning properly, which made me swell up to an enormous size,” she says. “I knew nothing about gardening. But Mike Hennessey had given me his promise, and I collected on it. He gave me $300 and four inmates, and sick as I was, I waddled out and started clearing the field.”

That was in 1984. Today Cathy Sneed is in good health--and so is her garden. Her “students"--the inmates of the San Bruno Jail--grow more than 50,000 pounds of produce every year. When they’re released, they graduate to a garden in one of San Francisco’s worst neighborhoods, where they grow baby vegetables for the Bay Area’s fanciest restaurants. Sneed has turned hundreds of criminals into gardeners, employed hundreds of former convicts in gardens set up around San Francisco, and is currently thinking of new ways to grow food and create even more jobs.

“Cathy,” says San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, “has a magical ability to change people’s lives.”

“If you had told me I’d end up counseling criminals,” says Arlene Hamilton, “I wouldn’t have believed you.” She was an ordinary woman, an elementary school teacher who taught children how to garden. And then she met Cathy Sneed.

“Cathy’s children were going to the school where I was teaching,” she says. “One day, Cathy came in and said, ‘Why don’t you come and teach us gardening at the jail?’ She was so excited. And so sick. And so insistent. Little did I know that she was the visionary who never gives up.

“She talked me into coming down here. I walked into the building with her and 1,000 people in cages started beating on the bars calling ‘Cathy, Cathy, Cathy.’ ”

“Cathy has such an ability to encourage and inspire,” says Hennessey. “She has taken a few exceptional gardeners and turned them into prison counselors. She has made them realize that they can change people’s lives.”


On this day, Hamilton strides through the dim corridors of San Francisco County Jail No. 7, unlocking doors as she walks. She passes guards sitting in large control rooms, their eyes glued to the inmates below them, unlocks another door that takes her past more guards, unlocks another door. She is moving away from the light, down into the darkness of the jail. Unlocking the final door, she strides into an enormous room, one small white woman facing 120 men of all colors. She marches into the center of this group of thieves, murderers and drug addicts and demands their attention.

“We just harvested 2,000 pounds of garlic,” she shouts, “and it’s worth $8,000!” The men cheer. “We have planted an acre of blue corn!” she continues. More cheers.

Somebody is not paying attention. Undaunted, Hamilton turns to this huge black man and says sweetly, “My brother, would you get off the phone, dear, please?”

He quickly hangs up. Hamilton continues. “Each man that has left in the past two weeks has gone straight to the outside garden for employment,” she says. “And we are trying to increase the number of jobs!”

There is a quality to this therapy that falls somewhere between pep rally and church service; the men begin to testify. “The main thing I like about the garden, it sets your mind on positive things instead of negative,” says Robert Bell, a sweet-faced man here for selling drugs. “Yes, yes,” murmur the other convicts. “I start in the outside garden the day I get out.” There is a roar of approval.

“I lost my focus when I got out last time,” says Herbie Massey. “But this time’s going to be different. There’s an outside program I can go to. I’m going to make something of my life.”

“Yes, yes.” The congregation nods assent.

“Being in jail gave me a chance to grab hold, take the weeds out of my life,” says Madison Norwood, an older man who says he is incarcerated for “being violent to his wife.” He adds, “I know that six months doesn’t sound like much, but since I’ve been here, I’ve changed. I came to life in the horticulture project.”


It is a shock to come from the dim roar of the jail into the fresh light of the garden. This powerful metaphor is not lost on Sneed and Hamilton.

“The garden is the perfect analogy all the time,” says Sneed, picking up a hose and watering some baby bean plants. The good smell of the earth rises up as the water hits the warm dirt. “Gardening is so simple: If you care for the lettuce it will grow. If you dog it, it won’t. It’s that simple. “

Sneed has been insistent, from the beginning, that her garden be organic. “Most people who come to jail are substance dependent,” she says, “and what I wanted to show them is how much better life is without chemicals. You take a chemical and put it in the garden, and you get quick results, but what does it do to the soil? I wanted to show them that it’s like the quick fix you get from heroin.”

Sneed’s conviction that Steinbeck was right has grown stronger over the years. “I’m absolutely sold that there’s inspiration in this sort of nature work. It empowers people, raises their self-esteem.” She herself learned to garden in the Agroecology program at UC Santa Cruz. “I took a six-month leave in 1987 to go to school. They absolutely infect you with this love for gardening in Santa Cruz; when I came back I knew we were going to kick some butt.”

She kicked until there were eight acres laid out in neat rows of vegetables. She kicked some more and got a greenhouse, built as part of San Francisco’s Percent for Art program. (“Mike Hennessey said, ‘They need a greenhouse--now that would be high art.’ ”)

She kicked again and brought in rabbits and goats. “Some people can’t connect with the plants, but everybody connects to the goats. Goats give you an instant response: They’re nurturers.”

But if this looks like an orderly, ordinary farm, it sounds like a war zone. The insistent pop of guns echoes constantly from the sheriff’s shooting range, reverberating through the garden. The noise is deafening; it sounds as if a battle is taking place over the next ridge.

“I don’t mind it,” says Sneed. “When we’re working with these guys, it’s life or death. If we fail to give them hope, they will die. This is a reminder. I’ve been asked how I feel when one of my students shows up back in jail. It makes me sad, but I don’t mind that either. To me, just the fact that they’re alive means that I haven’t failed.”

When Bernard K. got out of jail, he went to Hunters Point to work in the outside garden. One day he didn’t show up. He didn’t show up the next day either. On the third day, Sneed went looking for him. When she found him, he was smoking crack.

“My staff was worried that he was going to kill me,” Sneed says. “But I know he’s not going to do that. He’s going to do what I say because he knows I’m not scared, and I represent caring. I said, ‘Get your things, you’re coming with me.’ ”

Bernard came with her. Today he crouches down in the garden, one hand reaching tenderly to cup a potato while the other pulls a weed. “These are fingerlings,” he says, stroking the potato. He stands up, moves down the row, points. “These are some kind of special wild strawberry,” he says, “these are baby lettuces, these are carrots. All this stuff goes to a place in Berkeley called Chez Panisse.”

His face works, striving for some balance between pride and cool; he seems slightly embarrassed about his feelings about the garden. Finally he blurts out, “This used to be nothing but a dump. It’s really nice to look at something and see what you’ve done with it.”

Bernard now lives in a halfway house Sneed has rented for people who don’t have anyplace to go when they get out of jail. “It’s not a palace,” she says. “Its a refuge center, a three-bedroom house in Hunters Point, a couple blocks from the garden. It’s a collective of people who have been in jail, living together.” Asked who pays the rent, she looks uncomfortable. “I did last month,” she finally admits.

“She’s always had a great big heart for anybody in trouble,” says Hennessey. “When she was my student I was running a legal aid project, and I found out that she took some of the women she had worked with into her house when they got out. I told her that they were criminals, that it wasn’t a good idea. She said, ‘What am I supposed to do? They have no place to go.’ ”

Elliott Hoffman, one of San Francisco’s biggest business success stories (he started with cheesecake and ended up with an empire), walks through his Just Desserts bakery. He takes a piece of poppy-seed cake from a tray of broken pastries.

“Man, what was that weird-looking stuff you just ate?” asks Rodney Garrett, an ex-convict who’s been lounging by the coffee machine.

“Try some,” urges Hoffman, holding out the tray. “It’s good.”

“There are 300 people working in this bakery,” says Sneed with a certain wonder, “and Elliott was brave enough to let ex-murderers come in and mingle with them. It’s been wonderful for my students; 400 of them have been able to come here and see all sorts of people working together, people who are happy in their work.”

Garrett strolls through the bakery and out to the garden. Hoffman follows. “When I first saw Cathy’s garden at the jail,” he says, “I wanted to help. But I didn’t just want to give her a check. I thought of this trash-filled dump behind the bakery, and I asked if she wanted it for a garden.”

“Then he started getting to know the people working in the garden,” says Sneed, “and hiring them.” She grimaces a little. “The first kid Elliott hired took the Just Desserts truck and disappeared. He’d gone to cruise his neighborhood; he’d never had a job before. The thing about Elliott, it didn’t scare him. Since then he’s hired more people. “

“They need to learn to work,” says Hoffman. “And they’re growing such wonderful stuff in the garden.” He looks proudly out the window and hastens to add, “And I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

Indeed, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who buys as much of the garden’s produce as she can get, is helping Sneed set up more gardens. “What they grow is extremely high quality,” she says. “Cathy understands the connection between putting your hands in the dirt and nourishing yourself,” she adds. “I would do anything she asks me to do. Anything. When I look at her, I feel real hope for the world.”

Sneed herself feels more urgency than hope. Her illness, which mysteriously went away, is always in the back of her mind. Instinctively she thinks the garden cured her; intellectually she knows she’s in remission.

“For how long?” she wonders. Now, she looks up and catches sight of the clock on the wall of the factory. “I’ve got to go,” she says, picking up her keys and running to the door. “I was due across town half an hour ago. I’m always looking for more money to support the programs.” At the door she pauses and says, “I feel this drive to do everything, all at once, right now.”

These recipes are from the “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.” Since both depend on really fresh produce (don’t even try to make the soup unless you have young, recently-picked corn), they explain why chef Alice Waters considers the fresh vegetables grown in the Hunters Point garden so important.


6 ears sweet corn

1/4 cup unsalted butter

Salt, pepper

3 cups water

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled and minced

With sharp knife, remove all corn kernels from cobs. Melt butter in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add corn kernels and season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute 4 minutes, then add water. Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and cool slightly. Pour into blender and blend until smooth. Press through sieve to smooth texture. Add whipping cream, return mixture pot and reheat. Garnish with minced chiles. Makes 6 servings.


1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves

4 cloves garlic

1/2 pound Italian Fontina cheese

12 fresh open squash blossoms

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk

1 cup fine cornmeal

Oil for deep-frying

12 sprigs Italian parsley

1/2 cup black olives

Mince parsley leaves with garlic. Cut cheese into 1 1/2x1/2-inch pieces.

Open squash blossoms and insert some parsley-garlic mixture and 1 piece cheese into each. Twist ends gently together.

Beat eggs with milk. Dip each blossom into milk mixture, roll quickly in cornmeal and refrigerate few minutes.

Heat oil to 350 degrees in deep-fryer. Fry stuffed blossoms about 3 minutes, or until they begin to brown and cheese is melted. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately, garnished with parsley sprigs and olives. Makes 6 servings.