Photo by Stromness Dundee.

What do dairy and drug policy reform have in common? Working together, the two could fuel renewal that mutually benefits urban and rural communities — or so think the folks at Milk Not Jails, a “volunteer-run, grassroots campaign working to build a new urban-rural alliance in New York State.” The group’s founders have made the connection between urban blight — particularly the massive numbers of low-level drug arrests that create cycles of recidivism, unemployment, and crime in already-impoverished minority communities — and rural blight tied to the struggle of family farms to stay afloat as agriculture is consolidated and corporatized and farmland is gobbled up by sprawl. For down-on-their-heels communities in upstate New York — like for rural towns in every state — the war on drugs has been an economic boon, as the need for more prisons to contain skyrocketing numbers of nonviolent drug offenders brings vital jobs to areas once supported by agriculture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Milk Not Jails. Why should the survival of rural, mostly white communities be dependent on the devastation of urban, mostly minority communities? The group wants to bring New York back to the days when small dairy farmers could make a living by selling their products to urban eaters. “We want New York’s urban residents to support its rural residents by buying their milk, not going to their prisons,” Milk Not Jails cofounder Brenden Beck told GOOD magazine recently.

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Milk Not Jails sells products from independent dairy farms via community-supported agriculture sites in New York City, and offers subscriptions of its wares to workplaces, childcare centers, cafes, and institutional housing. The group works with farmers who, in addition to running sustainable, humane operations, support Milk Not Jails’ policy agenda, which comprises four “rural and farm demands” (such as “Stop Dean Foods’ Monopoly”) and four “criminal justice demands” (such as “End Racist Marijuana Arrests”). The farms offer strategic political support in exchange for being connected with a customer base downstate.

Cofounder Lauren Melodia has been in the trenches of prison reform for a few years now, so she’s experienced the challenges of trying to make progress on such a politically and racially charged subject. Criminal justice reform is a hard pill to swallow for rural residents who see it as a liberal threat to the economic promise a prison brings to their community. The brilliance of Milk Not Jails is that it offers an alternate path to rural recovery as well; it refuses to see the revitalization of inner cities and small towns as mutually exclusive.

The day may come when you can drink your raw milk and smoke your marijuana, too, and both city and country folk will be better off.

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