SF cooking class offers food knowledge to former inmates

The chef held up a summer squash at a first-of-its-kind cooking class outside the Ferry Building on a recent Monday evening.

“What do you think the squash will add?” Hollie Greene, a San Francisco-based chef, asked the 16 community health workers in attendance as part of a lesson on how to make chili.

Receiving no responses, she continued, “It's going to add more fiber. Squash by itself doesn't have a ton of flavor, but if you saute it with some onion and garlic, and a little salt and olive oil, all of a sudden, this is a delicious base.”

Behind Greene, the founder and CEO of JoyFoodly, a chicken baked in a portable oven. A plate with just a few crumbs remaining of the roasted cauliflower Greene prepared for the health workers sat beside a pile of fresh vegetables she would soon stir into the chili.

The cooking class was part of the second annual meeting of the Transitions Clinic, a health organization founded in Bayview-Hunters Point in 2006 to aid recently released inmates who have chronic illnesses.

The clinic has since spread to five more states and Puerto Rico, said Dr. Emily Wang, one of the co-founders.


The community health workers hired by the Transitions Clinic share a commonality with their clients — they too were previously incarcerated.

“A community health worker has actually broken the negative cycles of incarceration,” Wang explained. “When a program is led by community health care workers, patients will come to the clinic. They will be engaged in the health care system, they will use the emergency department systems less frequently.”

Among the life skills that community workers teach their clients is eating healthy, which is especially important for those with chronic health conditions, said Dr. Shira Shavit, director of the Transitions Clinic in San Francisco.

“In order for people to be successful in society and to be able to break that cycle of incarceration, they also have to be healthy,” Shavit said.

“Some of the reality of the clients that we serve and our community health workers is they may not have had much exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “We think about our patient population, and there are a lot of issues with access to food.”

Eating healthy is more challenging for a recently released inmate because of limited funds and the lack of access to fresh foods, said Ron Sanders, the first community health worker Transitions Clinic hired in 2006.

“A lot of my clients don't have enough money after they pay their rent,” said Sanders, 51. “A lot of them don't qualify for food stamps, so once they get through paying their rent and everything, it's a struggle. They might have $150 to $200 a month to live on, and then they have to budget that out.”

Following release from incarceration, many of Sanders' clients move to the Tenderloin or Bayview-Hunters Point, where the availability of fresh food is limited.

“There are more liquor stores than there are supermarkets” in those neighborhoods, Sanders said. “Try to find some fresh fruit in a liquor store. It's not good.”

Adjusting from being served three meals a day to having to feed oneself is also challenging for ex-convicts, said Juanita Alvarado, 38, a San Francisco-based community health worker who also attended the Transitions Clinic cooking class.

“You have access to food,” Alvarado said of being incarcerated. “It might not be the healthiest food, but you're getting fed three meals a day.”

Once out of prison, former inmates don't necessarily gravitate toward healthy foods, she said.

“They're used to ramen noodles and different things like that, instead of accessing more healthy things,” Alvarado added.


Back at the cooking table, Greene's assistant chef Annie Hanrahan showed the community health workers how to make brown rice. She instructed them to use two cups of water for every cup of rice. But first, she said, rinse the rice.

“I always like to rinse my rice first,” Hanrahan said. “In general, I rinse all my produce — fruits, vegetables, beans, grains. You want to make sure it's nice and clean.”

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