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Not Just Peeling Potatoes - New York Times

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Not Just Peeling Potatoes

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Darcy Padilla for The New York Times

COOKING Women in a program at the San Francisco Jail learn about the nutrition and affordability of locally grown food. Barbara Ashe, center, is an instructor for the program. By LAURA NOVAK Published: November 13, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO AT 9 on Thursday mornings, 20 women in neon-orange sweatsuits line up outside their dormitories, known as D and E Pods, before walking through a series of locking doors into the classrooms at the San Francisco County Jail. They are part of a substance abuse treatment program called Sister, which stands for Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery.



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They begin their food and nutrition class, discussing the

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Not Just Peeling Potatoes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:15 PM

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They begin their food and nutrition class, discussing the roles that food plays in their lives, the price of macaroni and cheese and the effect that government has on the food

chain. Then these women, the majority of whom are addicts, mothers and repeat offenders, are engulfed by cooking aromas, laughter and camaraderie as they slice, marinate and fry locally grown organic food that they will sit down to eat, family style. This class is run by Nextcourse, a nonprofit program in San Francisco that teaches mothers and young people how to eat nutritiously and affordably while supporting the local agricultural community. “People living in poverty and certain minorities are the groups most afflicted by obesity and food insecurity,” said Susie White, the project director of Nextcourse. “In the jail program, we are educating them that they can eat in more sustainable and affordable ways.” Nextcourse was started three years ago by Larry Bain, a manager in several San Francisco restaurants, to enlighten consumers about eating in an environmentally sustainable way. Coincidentally, the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department, led by Michael Hennessey, who has a reputation as an advocate of alternative interventions for treating substance abuse and violence, was opening the Five Keys Charter High School in partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District. It was the first charter high school in the country to be set up in a jail. Mr. Bain approached Sheriff Hennessey about introducing Nextcourse to the curriculum of Five Keys. Students could learn the differences between nutrient-dense and processed foods and the effects of preservatives on metabolism and mood. More important, the women in the Sister program, 74 percent of whom have children, would be taught how to shop for healthy foods and to cook for their families for $5 or less a person, once they left jail. The Sheriff’s Department welcomed the Nextcourse program and now contributes $5,000 a year to offset the food cost. Nextcourse is sponsored by the Trust for Conservation Innovation but is supported mainly by grants and donations. Ms. White of Nextcourse said that it spent $12,000 a year on the jail program out of its annual $50,000 budget. For that program, Nextcourse relies on two staff chef-nutritionists as well as high-profile chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants who volunteer their time. The courses at Five Keys are taught in five-week blocks to a constantly revolving inmate population. (The average jail stay is 90 days.) Of the 246 women admitted to the rehabilitation units at the jail in 2005, about 120 took part in the cooking classes at least once. The goals of Nextcourse are entwined with the goals of rehabilitation: nurturing, selfdiscipline and self-discovery. The inmates “have significant health issues that they are trying to combat,” Ms. White said. “We’re trying to reacquaint people with the notion that food can be pleasurable and nurturing.” One Thursday in late September, the menu was Southern comfort food: collard greens with bacon and onions, cornbread, barbecued chicken and corn salad. Each dish was broken down in a handout by price per ingredient per person for a family of four.


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Not Just Peeling Potatoes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:15 PM

The chefs, Megan Hanson and Rania Long, handed out hairnets, aprons and gloves and assigned each woman a job. Since no knives are allowed, Ms. Long had precut the chicken at home, though the inmates were allowed to use a mandoline (with a nonremovable blade) to slice vegetables. And only Ms. Long adjusted the burners on the stove. “It’s completely transformed in here,” Ms. Long said. “And when we sit down to eat, you feel it too. How they interact with each other and how they work together, it definitely brings out the better qualities in them.” Once the food was on the table, the women observed a minute of silence. Then they sipped iced tea with mint and enjoyed the cooking and talk. But the deeply personal soon became impersonal as the women returned to the pods, where they lined up with the other inmates for a cold lunch served in plastic trays. “I am trying to save my life,” said Vera Brown Pittman, 38, a convicted crack-cocaine dealer who has been in and out of prison since she was 19. “If I choose to eat more healthy foods and more naturally grown foods,” she added, “maybe my metabolism will change.” Nita Riccardi, 41, who has eight months to go on her sentence for a hit-and-run crime, said “When you eat this food, because it’s real nutritious, you can feel it in every cell of your body, all the way to your fingertips.” But is Nextcourse tilting at windmills, given that 97 percent of the jail’s female inmates are repeat offenders? The recidivism rate in the Sister program, measured over one year, was 39 percent; the rate for the women who did not participate in the program was 60 percent to 70 percent, said Teresa Nelson, a senior manager in the Sheriff’s Department. Of the women in the Sister program who went on to residential drug treatment last year, fewer than half of them completed it. “Not everyone is going to turn their life around on this trip,” said Elyse Graham, the program manager for Sister. “But for some, the food thing really lands with them.” “Food,” she said, “can really be a turning point to change lifestyles and health.”
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Not Just Peeling Potatoes - New York Times

12/8/09 1:15 PM

To find reference information about the words used in this article, double-click on any word, phrase or name. A new window will open with a dictionary definition or encyclopedia entry. Past Coverage LEARNING; Not Just Peeling Potatoes (November 13, 2006) A Recipe for a Second Chance (March 9, 2005) A Refugee's Secret: Rising Culinary Star, Now Inmate E37326 (February 7, 2004) Inmates Learn to Cook For Jobs After Release (November 24, 1996) Related Searches Prisons and Prisoners Cooking and Cookbooks Women Drug Abuse and Traffic


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