In January 2008, the Rex Foundation was pleased to provide a grant to Nextcourse to support its community-building initiative for services to incarcerated women. Rex had earlier supported Nextcourse’s sustainable food education work, including nutrition education classes taught in the San Francisco women’s jail.
Along with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, Forensic AIDS Project/UCSF Nursing School, and community-based organizations including Community Works, Centerforce, and 5 Keys Charter School, Nextcourse set out in January 2008 to develop a long-term strategy for providing health and nutrition education to women released from the jail system.
Studying current data on the women incarcerated in the San Francisco jail, the group found that due to a number of issues, including jail overcrowding and the prevalence of alternative supervision and programming, women were behind bars for shorter stays than before. Given the shorter incarceration times, the group wanted to focus on preventing women from returning to jail by strengthening post-release services and developing comprehensive transitional services through a new Women’s Reentry Center, located adjacent to the jail facility.
Rex’s support allowed Nextcourse to lead this planning effort by convening and facilitating regular meetings, identifying information and resources to move planning efforts forward, and assisting with key presentations to potential partners and funders.
Here’s a report we recently received from Nextcourse on the Soul Food Project, which came into being last fall as a result of these efforts:
“We recognized the need to provide women recently released from jail with emergency services such as housing, counseling and support, as well as more long-term services that can address the root causes and effects of substance abuse and victimization issues pervasive with this population of women. An important part of the service framework needed to include health and nutrition information as an integral piece of transition planning. Thus, Nextcourse and the planning partners developed a proposal for the Soul Food Project, which was awarded a three-year grant through the Network for a Healthy California. Soul Food commenced at the Women’s Reentry Center in October 2008.
“The goal of the project is to empower this community of women to nurture and heal themselves through healthy eating and active lifestyles. The vision for the Soul Food project is to create a new paradigm within women’s restorative and rehabilitative community programs that shifts our service priorities. Access to employment, housing and counseling resources is less effective—if at all—if women have not acquired the tools to care about, and for, themselves.
“This new way of thinking emphasizes physical health and well-being as an essential element of empowerment. Solid, relevant food, nutrition and physical activity education that considers a cultural and economic need is an important part of this strategy, and a replicable model applicable in most community reentry, rehabilitation, and transitional centers.
“Partnership with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which has a national reputation for innovative, model programming, will provide access to agencies and organizations who might not have considered food education as an important part of rehabilitation. At the conclusion of this project, we envision a community of women and organizational partners that values healthy eating and supports the availability of healthy foods.
“The efficacy of Soul Food relies on the participation of community partners who are invested in women’s health issues, equitable access to sustainable foods, and job security. Over these three years through a partnership with Community Works, Soul Food will provide ten sustainable-food paid internship opportunities to women who demonstrate a commitment to a healthier lifestyle and career development. Interns are placed for six months in the Soul Food project with the goal to increase their learning around community food system issues while developing and managing project activities. Interns are then placed with sustainable food businesses for long-term employment.
“Ielia was one of the first Soul Food participants; here’s what she has to say about how the program has affected her life:
“Hustling was the only life I knew. I have always been a hustler. My mom was a hustler, my dad was a hustler, and my stepfather hustled the system. I never paid close attention to my health. I ate and drank everything unhealthy. My food was always fried. I always thought I needed to lose weight and was never happy with my figure. I would go on and off diets all the time, but they never lasted more than a month.
“I started Soul Food classes ready to change and open to new experiences. Everything we talked about in class made sense to me and everything I tasted was new, but delicious. I have picked up how to shop and cook on a budget, but healthy and satisfying. If there is one challenge, it’s that some products, like olive oil, are more expensive, but it’s worth the investment.
“I have learned to eat and live healthier. I have learned about the different kinds of nutrients and how the quality affects my body. I have learned to live a healthier lifestyle and don’t diet anymore.
“I read ingredients and look for the product with least artificial ingredients. I am trying to shop at farmer’s markets more. I eat greens almost every day, bake instead of fry, use healthy oils, switched to sea salt, use new spices, try new vegetables.
“I hope one day I’ll be able to join forces with Nextcourse and become the Soul Food Intern.
“In just a few months since Soul Food started, the weekly nutrition education and healthy cooking classes—originally planned for six to eight participants—have been averaging twice that number. Even more women have been eager to participate in monthly market walks to local healthy grocers and farmers’ markets, to learn where to find, and shop for affordable, healthy foods. Staff and students have already created change in the Women’s Reentry Center community by leading center partners to make a commitment to healthier foods for their emergency food pantry and adding a healthy breakfast program.
“Nextcourse and the women of Soul Food are extremely grateful to the Rex Foundation for recognizing that we do not stand as one community if the needs of some of us go unrecognized. We all are looking forward to building this healthy community of women.”