Episode 2: The Master’s Tools

22Dec14

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Episode 2: The Master’s Tools

It took Milk Not Jails five months to get a meeting at the milk bottling plant in Delhi, NY. It might have been because the plant was in the midst of being sold by Dallas-based Dean Foods to Friesland Campina, a Dutch dairy company. Or could have been because they’re guarding some top secret recipes? Why else would their facility need to be more highly secured than any prison or government building we’ve ever visited?

FIG 13 P26The plant manager was as tight lipped as the security systems at the plant. We were there to look into contracting with them to process Milk Not Jails’ farmers’ milk as 1% milk, since schools and food pantries are required by New York State law to only offer low-fat dairy products to their clients. Making low-fat milk requires expensive machinery that only one of our farmers currently has. Until we have access to this machinery, our farmers cannot deliver milk to food pantries, public schools, or even for new moms to buy with their WIC checks at the grocery store.

Our meeting with the plant manager in Delhi foreshadowed every subsequent meeting at other dairy plants. These plants mix all of the milk they get from different sources and just change the packaging based on the brand they are bottling. Their clients do not care where the milk comes from, so the idea of working with the farmers in their area to make a local product made absolutely no sense to them. We searched long and hard for a milk plant. Late this spring, Diamond, a  Milk Not Jails member who is in prison, joined the search team convinced some facility out there could work.  In July, he sent us an exciting letter.  Apparently Woodbourne Correctional Facility used to have a factory to bottle milk from the prison farm for the mess hall. Maybe we would be able to bottle our milk there? We called Woodbourne right away, but we were too late. They’d sold off the equipment over a year ago after the state decommissioned the prison farm program.

We set aside our dreams of Milk Not Jails at every public school in New York for now and tried to focus on growing sales using the smaller-scale equipment our farmers already have.  Then, this fall, we got some good news! Lauren met some faculty from SUNY Cobleskill at a conference upstate. They were applying for a grant to build a brand new dairy plant on their campus. They were looking for letters of support and we organized our farmers to send in a stack of letters right away. On a follow-up call the next week Lauren asked for more details about the plant.

  “Well we already have some dairy processing equipment at the school and now we are raising money to build a new structure and get more equipment to make everything – cheese, ice cream, yogurt, you name it,” said the faculty advisor on the project.

     “Oh…what equipment do you already have?” Lauren asked.

     “We got a milk separator and pasteurizer at a Department of Corrections auction. I think about a year ago they were selling off all of the old prison farm equipment and we just grabbed it.”

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Each year, Milk Not Jails sets ambitious goals—pledging to challenge the economic and political systems that are part of our daily lives.  We do this by empowering those most directly impacted by these systems with the tools needed to transform them. We are building political power with strange allies and in unusual places. This work takes time, especially since we are committed to working with communities to unravel the prison system and agricultural institutions. But we also see the impact intimately everyday as we build and test these new relationships. This month, we bring you three stories about our exciting work in different corners of New York State. Please make a donation today, so we can continue this necessary work.



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