Food service program helps prepare women’s jail inmates for release 

click to enlarge S. PARKER YESKO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • S. Parker Yesko/Special to The S.F. Examiner

At Hard Thyme Café in Redwood City, inmates serve lunch in a simulated recreation yard-to-table restaurant, learning life skills and professional development along the way.

This week, a team of 12 inmates at the Women’s Transitional Facility prepared sriracha chicken wings, Caesar salad, Italian sausage lasagna, biscotti and more for San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks and other sheriff’s office staff.

The inmates sourced some ingredients from a garden in the facility’s recreational yard and were also responsible for setting up and breaking down the dining room, taking orders, serving food and washing dishes during the second official test-run of their cafe.

The hope is that they will learn to cook nutritious meals on budget at home and be able to find employment waiting tables or working in a commercial kitchen upon their release.

“We teach them how to slice, dice, cut, prepare, manage. Pretty much anything they can do in their family here, they can do at home,” said Elihu Kittell, who volunteers his time running the program after his work as chef supervisor in the San Mateo County jails is done.

“The biggest thing is to get a spirit in these ladies, to give them confidence; all of that, so they can possibly change,” added Kittell.

The pilot restaurant concept is expected to continue on a monthly basis and is an outgrowth of the Women’s Culinary Arts Program, which Kittell founded in 2010.

After five weeks of learning cooking and other skills in the program, most women move on to a food service certificate course at JobTrain, a nonprofit vocational skills school in Menlo Park. Through JobTrain, the women are placed in externships at local eateries and often land lasting employment after graduation.

“One of the challenges that people coming out of jail face is being able to find a job, being job ready, having job experience. And so, what we feel is that we can use the time that they’re here in custody to better prepare them to reenter the community,” said Munks.

Kittell estimates that the program has an 85 percent job placement rate and that only 20 percent of women end up back in the prison system. One recent alumnus now works full time as a pantry cook on the Stanford University campus.

Work furlough arrangements allow inmates to serve time while being permitted to engage in training and employment opportunities offsite. During the day, participants head out into the community with ankle monitors. At night, they return to jail.

The Women’s Transitional Facility is a minimum-security jail for mostly non-violent offenders, typically serving six months to a year for property or drug-related crimes. Only inmates with the best behavioral record are offered a place in the Women’s Culinary Arts Program, which has given participants a new sense of hope.

“I’ve learned so much about working in the kitchen, so many recipes and different flavors. I’ve learned a lot of teamwork too,” said inmate Erin Griffin, who baked desserts and served on Tuesday. “You wouldn’t think you’d find this camaraderie in a jail.”

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