- The Post-Incarceration Kitchen:Food-Based Community Organizing and Employment after Imprisonment
The concept is recycle, repurpose, reuse. We've built gardens in the back, so we can teach them sustainable living and growing. The idea that something can grow from something so small. When you see the harvest, you can really reformat your mind. And if all you see is death, you'll reformat that way, too.1Susan Trieschmann, Executive Director, Curt's Café
In September 2013, I completed my first interview in Chicago.2 Jay was twenty-one at that time. He was living in the city after having spent years in and out of a state boy's home, county jails, and prisons in multiple states. I asked him several questions about his experience with food during his incarceration, and his responses ranged from descriptions of his training and employment in a traditional prison kitchen to memories of eating with friends in the mess hall.3 Thinking back to that conversation, I remember that despite the stigma and hardship placed on him by his past criminal convictions, most notably securing employment, obtaining decent housing, and accessing healthy and affordable food, his voice and his demeanor reflected hope. He was especially excited to show me the garden and the produce he had helped cultivate at his new place of employment, a nonprofit café that hires and trains young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system. [End Page 57]
The garden that Jay referred to sits in the backyard of Curt's Café, a coffee shop and restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, Chicago's northern suburb. At first glance, its exterior with glass windows and a simple green awning looks similar to other establishments in the city that serve food and provide a space to meet friends for breakfast, coffee, or lunch. Its proximity to Chicago and to the light rail station makes it convenient for people traveling on public transportation and also contributes to its success. Indeed, many of the participants in its training program, including Jay, as well as regular customers, travel from Chicago or other neighboring cities to contribute to and benefit from the "good portions of hope and opportunity"4 cooked up at the café.
Curt's, which is an acronym that stands for Cultivating Unique Restaurant Training, is a nonprofit organization that provides food service and life skills training, as well as education about healthful, local, and sustainable food options, to youth who have contact with the criminal justice system. Part of the mission of Curt's is to "dine with purpose": enjoy great food and help our community at the same time.5 After sitting in peace circles with youth in Chicago, founder Susan Trieschmann learned that these young adults from underserved neighborhoods and in prison (ages from fourteen to eighteen) felt that if they had jobs, they wouldn't have participated in activities that led them to the criminal justice system. Based on that experience, she developed this concept to build skill sets among youth so they would be ready to get jobs if they were available. She doesn't require any prior experience; in fact the only requirement is "just [that you] are ready to try to make the commitment to change."6 Student employees learn all aspects of the enterprise, including dish washing, basic café management, basic prep, sandwich making, hot line, and running the cash register in front, and receive a daily stipend for their work.
While the program at Curt's is certainly one of a kind, companies and organizations with similar missions are cultivating change across the United States. In this article, I highlight the work of food-based businesses and nonprofit organizations that work to prevent involvement in the criminal justice system and provide employment opportunities for people with criminal records. By making spaces for people to assert their independence, showcase their abilities, and share the fruits of their labor with other individuals and groups, these enterprises seek to create positive change in the lives of directly affected individuals, particularly in low-income Black and Latino communities. Through an analysis of regulations and policies that limit the rights of...