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Q&A: Building A Food Revolution Behind Bars

San Francisco is famous for local, organic, sustainable food, but for all its influence and success, numerous food-related problems still plague the city, from food insecurity to obesity and heart disease. Next Course aims to tackle those problems, especially in poorer communities. One of their more innovative programs is the Soul Food Project, which works with incarcerated women to improve their health and well-being through food. We spoke with Soul Food's Project Coordinator Niyati Desai about how they're using food as a tool for building community connections.

GOOD: How did the Soul Food program originate?

NIYATI DESAI: Through a partnership between the San Francisco Sheriff's Department and Nextcourse, we brought professional chefs into the San Francisco County Jail to teach women how to cook a nutritious meal. Naturally this transitioned to an ongoing, weekly course in nutrition and culinary skills. Classes were well-received but our staff was eager to do more to minimize recidivism and support women post-incarceration. The vision for the Soul Food Project comes from the desire to give women in our community an opportunity to reconnect with their purpose, to identify and define their skills, and to recognize their own desire and ability to thrive in this complex society.

G: Tell me a bit about how you work with the women.

ND: It's important to understand that a typical Soul Food client is likely surviving years of emotional and physical trauma, substance abuse, and isolation from society. Job and family skills are minimal, and access to a fridge, let alone a functional kitchen, is minimal. Understanding that vulnerability, we developed the project components with the following values in mind: affordability, accessibility and sustainability. Each week our nutrition class focuses on issues related to food and addiction, self-image, and illness prevention, while discussing the basics of an affordable, yet nutritious diet.

Our weekly cooking class focuses on doing more with less. Clients learn to prepare recipes at less than $3 per person. Each month, we all take a walk to a market in our local area, which integrates physical activity with knowledge of shopping tips and resources. Last, but certainly not least, the Soul Food Project offers 6-month internships for clients who demonstrate a strong commitment to living a healthier life. This is where clients shine, as they're given an opportunity to tap into another life other than that of crime.

G: What sort of results are you seeing?

ND: My clients fall along a wide spectrum in terms of their readiness and willingness to change. One client told me she only uses olive oil now and her arthritis has improved while another came back to tell me after six months of eliminating soda, refined flours and sugars she's lost 10 pounds and has endless energy. For me, these are all success stories. Just being a witness to these women who, many for the first time, are engaging with the process of change is the greatest gift and a wonderful reminder that a little support goes a long way.

G: Your greatest inspiration so far?

ND: It involves two former clients of mine, both in their late 30's or early 40's with long histories of incarceration. As they describe, they lived a life of gangbanging, hustling, drug dealing – the "fast life." With early release from jail, and on the home detention monitor, they came to the Women's Reentry Center and both participated regularly in the Soul Food Project classes. While deepening their relationship with food and self-care, they told me story after story of how much they loved and missed cooking, reminisced about their favorite recipes, and expressed their desires to open a restaurant and give back to their community.

I hired them both as interns, and now, project assistants. Today, Chiquita has developed nutrition presentations for local in-patient treatment programs, has taken on the role of Childhood Nutrition Educator, and is dedicated to teaching parents the importance of modeling healthy behavior for the next generation. Nicole is completing a Healthy Soul Food cookbook, detailing the history of traditional southern ingredients, describing the health disparities plaguing southern African American communities, and of course, presenting ninety mouth-watering recipes for how to maintain revered food culture, while preserving her people's livelihood.

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