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Gardner Senior Center Director, Claude Leger, left, receives a delivery of fresh produce from Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

By: Stephen Landry, The Gardner News, July 24, 2020

GARDNER — It’s harvest season across the area and that means local food pantries and senior centers will be enjoying the bounty from the 15-acre organic farm at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston.

Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis recently stopped by the Westminster Senior Center and the Gardner Senior Center to drop off boxes of zucchini, squash, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes grown through the jail’s farm program.

Claude Leger, director of the Gardner Senior Center, said he had been at the center for several years and that the residents always looked forward to the sheriff’s annual visits during the harvest season.

“It’s a pretty impressive program that they’ve going on there,” Leger said during the sheriff’s visit on July 22. “Our seniors certainly appreciate it, and I imagine that at this time of the year — and the time we’re going through — it’s probably that much more important, with (the COVID-19 pandemic) going on and things like that.”

Evangelidis called the farming program one of the great win-win situations he’s been involved with in his 10 years in the sheriff’s office.

“We’ve got the cost down to under $500, and because this farm is grown every year, we’re able to grow 40,000 pounds of fresh, organic food — all types of varieties, and every year we add more,” Evangelidis said. “And it means the world to me because you see how much the inmates get out of this program. Just yesterday, we were picking with some of the inmates and they expressed the gratitude they have that this food goes to the community — it either goes to feed people in the jail or it goes to needy people in the community.”

The food grown at the farm can also work as medicine for some medical conditions, according to Evangelidis.

“This is more than just fresh produce,” he said. “People are getting fresh, beautiful, organic produce grown at the Worcester County Jail, and so for me it’s incredible to have a program that can do so much good for so little money and help so many people.”

Leger said he was grateful the Senior Center could be a recipient of the sheriff office’s farm program.

“Many of our seniors are in need and are on a fixed income, so we get these (fresh produce) deliveries and pass them out, and our seniors are certainly appreciative of it,” Leger said. “And they show their appreciation by showing up at the sheriff’s annual picnic every summer, which unfortunately will not be held this year. But this does mean a lot to the seniors.”

Officer Shaun Mullany with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office said the farm program is a good thing for everybody involved, especially for anyone who pays taxes.

“Everything is done with minimal cost,” said Mullany, who has been involved with the farm program for the past 17 years. “We’re basically in this program using willing inmates who want to make a difference in the community. They put their hours in because they know their labor is going to a better cause, and the best thing is they get to see their work going to a finished product. They put the seed in the ground, they care for the plants, and when they finally start to yield vegetables, there is a sense of gratification there.”

Evangelidis said he expects to be busy delivering fresh produce to local food banks and senior centers for the rest of the summer, adding that the farm had a very productive past few weeks.

“We had a tremendous growth spurt over the weekend, and the weather’s been cooperative, and we just distributed 900 pounds on Monday with another 500 or pounds today, and we’ll just keep going,” he said, adding that he expects to have delivered more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce by the end of the year.

“It will be our biggest year ever, and we expand the types of produce that we grow, so it’s not only bigger but it’s more diverse as well,” he said.