More Than A Cooking Class
By Mary Eisenhart
â€œWe believe it is our social responsibility to make healthy food accessible to the entire community, and we are dedicated to preserving local farms and farmland. Chefs are offering up their skills not to make a better chicken, but to make a better world.â€
â€“ Nextcourse founder Larry Bain
Once a week at the San Francisco County jail, about 20 women inmates participating in the SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery) program leave their cells and gather in a classroom. After listening to some information on health, nutrition and food choices, they join the instructor and pitch in to prepare and eat a meal together. Criteria: the meal is made from fresh, healthful, locally produced ingredients; the meal is delicious; the cost per serving is $5 or less.
Nextcourse founder Larry Bain recruits some Mission High kids to help out at his healthy hot dog stand, Let’s Be Frank.
Offering nutrition, food preparation and camaraderie, Nextcourseâ€™s classes in schools and jails, taught by chefs and other food professionals, provide a potentially life-changing resource to people most likely to be on the receiving end of a food industry more focused on profitability and convenience than nutrition and health. In addition to meal planning and cooking skills, they show how to take advantage of local farmersâ€™ markets to create tasty dishes that are at least as affordable as overprocessed supermarket and fast-food offerings, and which kids will happily eat.
One project where the kids themselves are involved is at Mission High School in San Francisco, where a pilot project last year was such a hit that its participants are now Peer Leaders to this yearâ€™s crop of students. Theyâ€™ve spread the word to friends and family by word of mouth and, most recently, in a community newsletter.
In 2006, the Rex Foundation gave a grant of $5,000 to help support Nextcourseâ€™s jail program, which is perennially strapped for funds. â€œRex was a lifesaver for us last year,â€ says Susie White, Nextcourseâ€™s project director, who took over the running of its community projects when Bain decided to focus his energies on the Food From the Park program, another Nextcourse project.
Nextcourse instructors and food pros Megan Hanson (left) and Rania Long (right), in aprons, teach Mission High School students about fresh produce.
We recently spoke with her to learn more about Nextcourse, its work, and the challenges it faces.
Rex Foundation: What inspired the creation of Nextcourse?
Susie White, Nextcourse: Nextcourse was founded in 2003 by Larry Bain, who at the time was the general manager for JardiniÃ¨re and Acme Chophouse restaurants. Larry had worked for many years in the Bay Area restaurant community modeling green business practices, particularly in the area of using sustainable foods â€” fresh, local, seasonal, free of chemicals, humane and just.
Larry and some of his like-minded colleagues were well aware of the growing food divide in this country and wanted to take the message of sustainable eating to people who needed it the most: low-income communities where the risk of hunger is high. Their belief was that eating in a sustainable manner can be more economical and healthier than a diet based on convenience and processed food, and no one was out there advocating this approach of food education.
Because many of our founders were professional chefs, cooks, and restaurant people, and we utilize cooking as a means of teaching people about food, we are often referred to as a cooking class. However, our true focus is to provide people an opportunity to acquaint themselves with fresh, whole foods, and to begin a new and conscious relationship with their food.
While sustainable food philosophy is at our core, our message is consistent with good nutrition, and some of our programs, like Mission High, operate under the heading of nutrition education. We think we have a more effective way to teach people about eating healthy, starting by raising awareness of how our food system has changed. We talk a great deal about the difference between whole and processed foods, and just a small bit about hidden sugars and good fat. Most traditional nutrition education programs spend much of their time reading labels; however, we encourage people focus more on foods that come without labels â€” whole, fresh foods.
Our belief is all people deserve the highest quality food available, and the best food available is grown locally, picked when it is at its peak of flavor and nutritional content, and doesnâ€™t have harmful additives that detract from good health and well-being. Our low-income communities are under siege by food corporations selling cheap and empty-calorie foods. The people in these circumstances are most in need of what we have to offer, and need inspiration to act on their own power to change things.
Mission High students discover the joy of pie.
Rex: You have quite a few projects addressing different aspects of food and nutrition issues. Given that thereâ€™s always more to be done than resources to do it with, how do you decide which projects to pursue?
Nextcourse: We are asked all the time to conduct cooking and nutrition classes for various groups, but in terms of our mission, the educational piece is only the first step. Our choice in projects is based on the potential to involve our participants in improving their own food system. This requires organizational partners that recognize the need for change and have a genuine commitment to our philosophy.
We not only want people to be able to make healthier changes in their own lives and to understand that their choices can be votes for better food, but to also begin to identify ways they as a community can effect change.
Rex: Particularly in view of the much-publicized dire state of Californiaâ€™s prison healthcare system, and the contribution of bad food to the prison health problem, how does Nextcourseâ€™s program at the jail make a difference, and what difficulties does it face?
Nextcourse: The fact that the jail system doesnâ€™t see the correlation between what people eat (or what people are fed, in this case) and the implication for health is just a reflection of that same disconnect in our larger society. We also see this same thing in public schools and the declining health of our children.
When people come to jail, they are usually at their lowest point. They have not tended to their health, may have abused their bodies, and are generally just a mess. Healthy food (and exercise) could do a great deal to curb the diet-related chronic diseases that consume institutional budgets.
In our class, we teach our core concepts about sustainable eating, and prepare a complete meal that highlights simple cooking methods, the importance of fresh ingredients, and affordability. Each serving of our menu is under $4-5. From a practical standpoint, itâ€™s one healthy meal a week the women eat. They also experience the sense of community involved in cooking together and sitting down together to enjoy the meal.
The women participating in our jail program are housed in a special substance abuse and academic facility, so theyâ€™re involved in intensive rehabilitation programming. Since how we eat is such a big part of self-nurturing, emotional and physical well-being, it seemed logical that there should be a food education component.
When we started at the jail, we knew the available food was not conducive to the womenâ€™s needs. The jailâ€™s food is much like every other jail and prison in our country â€” based on calories and not nutritional value (or taste). Most of the food is highly processed, with little or no fresh offerings, and it generally tastes so bad that the women donâ€™t rely on their three meals. Instead, they supplement their diets with snack foods from the jailâ€™s commissary.
The regular food service is highly regulated and restricted by budget constraints, so we decided to work with the women on getting better foods in the commissary system. With the help of our class participants, we did a formal assessment of the commissary foods and presented our findings to the Sheriff. He gave us the green light to move forward as long as there was no increase in the costs of the foods.
Working with the commissary provider has been frustrating. It is very frustrating when you sit down at a table with people to talk about a real moral responsibility for the people who are in your care, and youâ€™re spending most of your time talking about profit margins, and this supplier or that supplier thatâ€™s not going to budge because theyâ€™re not willing to give up part of their profits. Itâ€™s a different set of priorities.
The kind of thing that weâ€™re running into with the commissary provider at the jail is no different from any other food corporation, and the way they control the foods that are available in our supermarkets and convenience stores. Itâ€™s all about making money and providing the cheapest food so the companies can make the greatest amount of profit. Itâ€™s a hard thing.
There has been a small victory on the jail front in terms of the commissary project. When we heard that the contract was coming up for renewal, we went and met with the contract manager for the sheriffâ€™s department, and talked with her about our assessments and our vision for how this commissary system could really support good health and not detract from good health.
This woman knew about the benefits of nutrition from her own experience, and championed our cause. She inserted some language into the RFP (request for proposals) requiring that the new commissary provider provide at least 10 percent of the items that were healthy items, as determined by us and by the sheriffâ€™s department.
(laughs) It doesnâ€™t sound like a lot; itâ€™s almost laughable to say, â€œYou have to provide 10 percent healthy foods, but 90 percent can still be crap.â€ But Iâ€™ll take the 10 percent and work with that, and hopefully next time around we can increase that percentage. Itâ€™s really about changing the culture that has been entrenched for so many years.
With regard to the healthcare system in the jails and prisons, if they had a higher priority for healthy food and exercise, they would have completely different outcomes for the inmate population. A lot of people arenâ€™t really paying attention to whatâ€™s happening in our jails and prisons, and thatâ€™s why things like this are allowed to continue. But again, it is representative of a larger problem in our society regarding health, nutrition and well-being, and just not putting a high priority on it.
Nextcourse instructor Rania Long shows the fine points of preparing kiwi fruit.
Rex: Who are the women who participate in the program, and what happens to them when they get out?
Nextcourse: Because itâ€™s a jail, most of the women we meet are incarcerated for fairly minor offenses and are going to be out within six months. By being in the jailâ€™s recovery program, theyâ€™re already trying to turn their lives around. But we do see them come back; some of the women have taken the program a couple of times.
Itâ€™s just the chronic nature of substance abuse, that you kind of get yourself a little together, and then when you have an emotional struggle or stress you relapse. And these women have a lot of stresses in their lives. They have children and often canâ€™t make enough money to support them; the kids may be staying with relatives, they may be in foster care. There could be an abusive husband or boyfriend â€” just a lot of issues they have to struggle with. When you look at all that and see what they go through, itâ€™s not hard to imagine the odds are against them, so weâ€™re always looking at ways to strengthen the program. Weâ€™re thinking of doing part of the program in their re-entry center after theyâ€™re released, rather than all at the jail. That would be the ideal time for the women to have somebody working intensively with them and integrating their nutrition and their recovery.
Also the sheriffâ€™s department has some needs for food, and weâ€™re looking at ways to see if women who have been through our program could work alongside us in preparing those foods, so they wouldnâ€™t just be getting the content from being part of this program, but also some job training as well. Weâ€™re looking at ways we can strengthen the outcome, and the sheriffâ€™s department is very committed to helping us do that.
Rex: How did the program at Mission High get started, and how is it working out?
Nextcourse: The kids weâ€™re working with at Mission High have been amazing to watch, and it has been their steady progress that has really guided the evolution of the program.
We started two years ago as a pilot in partnership with an educational farm called Pie Ranch. We had a straightforward agenda: to provide a small group of students with some classroom-based food education, and to augment the classroom piece with monthly trips to the farm focused on sustainable agriculture.
The students we started working with were from the special education track because they had a less restrictive curriculum that allowed for â€œalternativeâ€ teaching opportunities. On each trip, the kids would learn about and participate in some farming activities, and we would all prepare and enjoy a lunch from ingredients sourced from the farm. There was also some journaling to reflect on their experiences. It was an all-day event!
By the end of that school year, these kids had been transformed. They were eating healthier foods, trying new foods, encouraging their parents or caregivers to buy better foods, and to shop at (health food store) Rainbow and farmersâ€™ market. They become our biggest advocates, and strongly encouraged us to do more and involve more kids. So, we went to work and managed to get some funding, and just this past October started doing our school-based classes and ranch trips with 9th and 10th graders, with the assistance of last yearâ€™s students who serve as Peer Leaders.
We hope to grow new leaders from this yearâ€™s students, and begin the cycle anew next year.
Sampling fresh fruit in the neighborhood.
Rex: It sounds as if the kids go out and become evangelists for healthy eating in their communities.
Nextcourse:: They do. I definitely feel that way about the kids weâ€™ve been working with at Mission High, because theyâ€™ve been so proactive in communicating the things theyâ€™ve learned to other students and their families and friends. They have really been an inspiration that has driven this program, because we were just intending to do the pilot program, and werenâ€™t sure where it would go or if it would go anywhere. And seeing how these 12 kids, in a matter of nine months, were so transformed…
It wasnâ€™t just about food, either, it was about this small community that we had been involved in for nine months around food. When you come together and you eat and you make food and you do all those sorts of things, you really start to bond with people. These kids were from the same classroom, and they knew each other, of course, but they werenâ€™t really friends. And I swear, when you see them at the school now, you donâ€™t see one without seeing two or three or four or five of the others. They have really become great friends around this; theyâ€™ve had a shared experience that has made them a sort of family, and they often will refer to their class in that way, as a family.
Rex: Given the fact that the Bay Area food scene is overwhelmingly the province of affluent people, how do you avoid the pitfalls of being perceived as rich people talking down to the less fortunate and telling them what to do? How do you make sure people donâ€™t feel patronized?
Nextcourse: You raise a really valid point. So much of the food community is represented by rich white people (laughs) and because we have our roots in that, itâ€™s logical that those would be the people to get involved in this kind of program.
But weâ€™re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. What I think weâ€™re doing is giving people information that they can then use to make different decisions â€” or they can choose to not make different decisions if thatâ€™s their choice. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they donâ€™t like it.
In this case, if they donâ€™t like the food thatâ€™s represented in their neighborhood or their community, or that theyâ€™re being served at school, because of the information theyâ€™ve gained from taking part in a program such as Nextcourse, they know how to go about making changes. They can voice their opinion. Weâ€™re not trying to foster a dependence on our program; weâ€™re trying to give people the tools they need to empower themselves, to vote with their dollars.
One of the real benefits of involving professional food people in these programs is that they have a really true passion for food and for the work that theyâ€™re doing, and weâ€™ve found that thatâ€™s really inspirational and motivational for people, who see that somebody has such a love and passion for what they do and what food can mean in peopleâ€™s lives. How it can bring people together and families together, and be a source of pleasure and community. Thatâ€™s the ingredient that they bring to the table. We have a lot of content we share, but using professional food people really brings the passion.
Rex: Is Nextcourse an only-in-the-gourmet-ghetto kind of project, or can it be replicated elsewhere?
Nextcourse: I donâ€™t see any reason why this type of program canâ€™t be done in other areas. Almost every community in our country is struggling with these same issues and questions, and there are people in the community like the people who started Nextcourse who could step up to the plate. Thereâ€™s a restaurant community, a food community, a culinary community, whatever you want to call it, in almost every area of the country, and these people have a lot of knowledge and skills.
So I think you can definitely use this model in other places. The tools and the ingredients are all there for people to do it; itâ€™s just a matter of bringing them together and coordinating it.
Susie White: â€œWeâ€™re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they donâ€™t like it.â€