How a Cooperative Run by the Formerly Incarcerated Is Reshaping Chicago’s Food Industry

Yves here. This article brings up an issue that gets far too little attention: how to provide paid worker for recently released prisoners, or in more polite terms, the formerly incarcerated. The US has a huge pool of inmates it is perfectly happy to employ at well below minimum-wage pay scales, but is dangerously indifferent on how to get them jobs afterward that will allow them to support themselves.

Of course, with so many employers playing less than a living wage, even in a nominally stronger labor market, too many people can’t get by, and ex-cons are typically at the bottom of that heap. And they are often barred from making use of high value skills when they have acquired them, like firefighting. Plus jobs like trucking, which used to be a good “start over” for former prisoners, has had such a pay squeeze that trucking jobs are going begging and the situation is expected to get worse. And it’s not hard to imagine that women fare worse;  able bodied not too old men can go into constriction and other jobs that pay for muscle.

So it is instructive to learn how a venture is not just providing much-needed jobs for former felons but also is taking on food industry behemoths. And I bet the meals are better too.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute

If you went to public school in the U.S., chances are good that you remember school lunch as tater tots, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, burgers with fries and pizza slices so soaked through with oil that kids would pad them with napkins in attempts to soak up the grease. Then there were the chocolate milk cartons, a variety of soda choices, giant cookies, Hostess brand baked goods, many types of candy, and Frito-Lay brand chips of all varieties, among other unhealthy snacks and beverages schools regularly served.

These school meals were supplied by megacorporations like PepsiCo Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, Cherry Meat Packers Inc., Central Valley Meat Co. Inc., American Beef Packers Inc. and Jennie-O Turkey Store LLC. As detailed in a 2020 article by Jennifer E. Gaddis in the professional journal for educators Phi Delta Kappan, 95 percent of U.S. public schools participate in the government-subsidized National School Lunch Program, and this program is made up almost entirely of contracts by giant corporate food brands. Gaddis writes:

Since the 1970s, Big Food has colonized the school cafeteria. From signing lucrative food service contracts to promoting their corporate brands and dishing out chicken nuggets and other mass-produced, heat-and-serve items, the food industry has done quite well for itself by selling goods and services to schools across the United States…

In recent years, Big Food companies—and their industry associations—have spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government to weaken or change its nutritional standards, and these efforts have paid off handsomely. It happened in 2014, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) caved to industry pressure and made it easier for schools to serve French fries and pizza. It happened in 2018, when the USDA loosened restrictions on the amount of sodium, flavored milk, and refined grains that could be served in school meals.

It happened again in 2020 when the Trump administration proposed making the rules more flexible, Gaddis adds.

Megacorporations do not just supply food to schools. Big companies, including Aramark Corporation, provide much of the food served in hospitals, long-term care facilities, prisons and other places in the U.S. that offer large-scale prepared meals.

In addition to nutritional shortcomings, foods mass-produced through large corporations tend to be put together by undervalued and underpaid employees, cheaply and unsustainably sourced and produced, then shipped over thousands of miles, creating a significant environmental footprint. The Big Food industry is unhealthy, environmentally disastrous and lacking in innovation. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the many supply chain interruptions throughout the pandemic, and the exacerbation of food insecurity across the country, these mass food systems are frayed at best. They do not have us covered in a pinch. It is clearer than ever that there is a widespread need to rethink and relocalize food systems.

The Chicago worker cooperative ChiFresh Kitchen is working on doing just that for the food contracting industry in Chicago. They are modeling a new, locally grown-and-sourced way of supplying food to local schools, nursing homes, and transitional housing facilities.

Owned and operated primarily by Black formerly incarcerated women, ChiFresh prepared healthy, culturally relevant meals with food that is grown or raised at nearby farms. They are 100 percent employee-owned and operated, and all employees are eligible for ownership stake after 18 months on the job, after which they can start paying toward a $2,000 membership share.

Of their first day of operation in May 2020, they made jerk chicken strips and red beans and rice, with onions and peppers, as a practice run for friends and family, and as founding member-owner Edrinna Bryant told that week:

“‘We were so excited about the fact we were going to cook our first meal together and people can taste it,’ Bryant says. ‘That’s so exciting to me as a young Black mom who was incarcerated. For my child to know that his mom was in a situation that felt like the end of the world and look at her now… Ain’t no food going to go wasted here. … Each day each of us will pick somewhere on the South Side or West Side and bring some food to people who need it.’”

In addition to providing an alternative food contracting option to local facilities by introducing a locally sourced and prepared food option, they are also providing jobs, agency and ownership stakes to one of the most commonly marginalized groups in the country.

ChiFresh Kitchen is part of a growing BIPOC-led movement, via urban farms, food operators, worker centers, policy advocates and other community organizations in Chicago focused on food sovereignty, racial justice and equitable food access.

While the business planning for ChiFresh began in 2018, the business became operational just prior to the pandemic. They’d initially planned to launch in the summer of 2020, but launched earlier than planned in March 2020 via a contract with the Urban Growers Collective, which had received funding to address pandemic-related food insecurity in their communities. Less than a year into operations they were prepping 500 meals per day.

The demand for what ChiFresh offers has only grown since, and in December of 2020, they bought a 6,000 square-foot building (their current space is about 600 square feet), which they are working to renovate, funded through a series of grants. They plan to move into the new space in the spring of 2022, and expand their capacity so that they are able to prepare 5,000 or more meals per day.

ChiFresh Kitchen founder Camille Kerr—a workplace democracy/worker ownership/solidarity economy consultant—says the project began when a small group of people, herself included, were looking into the ability of worker cooperatives to create a “liberatory, dignified workplace for formerly incarcerated people, and specifically Black women.”

April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute spoke with Kerr about ChiFresh Kitchen and future potentials of local, worker-owned food sovereignty projects like this one to bring the food industry up to date with the real, current food needs of communities across the U.S. and beyond.

April M. Short: How did the idea for ChiFresh Kitchen come about, and how did you get involved?

Camille Kerr: I co-founded ChiFresh Kitchen… and at first it was just me and Joan Fadayiro and Angela Yaa Jones, who are local organizers [in Chicago]. We were looking into whether it was possible here in Chicago to create a liberatory, dignified workplace for formerly incarcerated people, and specifically Black women. We started out by bringing together an advisory board of other local community organizers, specifically people who were formerly incarcerated themselves and had deep relationships in the formerly incarcerated community. And then we brought on other local collaborators and entrepreneurs who could support us.

We went through a yearlong business planning process where we tried to figure out what kind of business might be able to create those jobs in a worker co-op context. Because I’m a workplace democracy/worker ownership/solidarity economy consultant, I had a client at the time in Boston, City Fresh Foods. They’re a Black-owned social enterprise and they were interested in becoming worker-owned, and their business model was to provide fresh, wholesome, local meals to childcare centers, schools and rehabilitation programs. And so we thought, “What if we tried that here [in Chicago]?”

This model that City Fresh Foods demonstrated seemed like it could work, so we kind of built a business plan around their model. Then, we recruited potential members through our advisory board member Colette Payne, who is an incredible advocate for formerly incarcerated Black women, and a formerly incarcerated woman herself. She recruited Kimberly Britt to come to our first member meeting in December of 2019, and Kim recruited three of her friends. Colette also gave the flyer to her younger brother, and her brother showed up too. Those five people who showed up for the meeting became the five founding members of ChiFresh, who have stayed on to this day.

AMS: Why was it important to the founders of ChiFresh to create a worker cooperative specifically for formerly incarcerated Black women?

CK: Why specifically formerly incarcerated Black women? It’s just the barriers. What I look at as a worker co-op developer interested in building the economy we want to see in the world is who is facing the highest obstacle to thriving in our current society. Let’s demonstrate to the world that, if you go out of your way to take the barriers down, people thrive.

People say things like, “It’s hard to work with this population; it might be easier for you to do this or that.” And it’s like: No. You work where the barriers are the highest, and you work to remove those barriers. If you start with that as your center, then you can demonstrate that we can create an economy that works for all of us. But you start with the folks who it works for the least right now, the people who’ve been the most shut-out, and then you go from there, and that’s how you build.

And their voices have to be centered the entire time, and they have to develop it. It has to be their design and their work, because they know what they need and they know what works. The only thing that we need to do is navigate the incredible bureaucracy and barriers that capitalism creates.

So, they say what they need, we play capitalism liaison and navigate the barriers, and then they can get delicious food out to their own communities.

In a thriving society, that’s something they should be able to do anyway, and they should be able to have a living wage doing it. The only thing that gets in between that happening is that you have to write intensive RFPs [requests for proposals] and build relationships with people who have money and power. You have to navigate all these other systems instead of just being able to feed your own people because that’s the right thing to do. Those are man-made barriers, and so our role is to take them down.

AMS: Typically, who are the people who receive ChiFresh Kitchen’s meals?

CK: It’s students in Chicago, mostly South and West Side students, and their families as well. Our food has gone to nursing homes. Our food has gone to transitional homes and churches. We’ll work with the Chicago Help Initiative, Night Ministry, and [during those events] we’ll get 150 meals out to folks who are experiencing homelessness. It’s a wide range of people, but all in our community, and all folks who are in need of a good meal.

AMS: You mentioned you launched ChiFresh early because of the pandemic, as members were facing unemployment delays, and simultaneously food insecurity in the local community was exacerbated. Will you share a little more about how the pandemic played a role in ChiFresh’s formation and expansion?

CK: We just had to make the choice to launch, and it was risky because we weren’t planning to open quite yet. I personally invested funding into the organization to buy the initial equipment we needed. We signed leases with the Hatchery, which is a food incubator. We ran a small GoFundMe that brought in some money. Then we’re like: All right, let’s just try it. Let’s see how it goes, because our folks need work, and these folks need food, and we can be the connection between the two.

We did all that between March and April of 2020. We were in the kitchen by April 26 or 27, and then we got our first meals out by May 11, because it took some time to get all the equipment and put it in place and put together a menu and all of the things that we wanted to do. It was risky. We knew this was the thing that we needed to be doing. And it really worked out for us.

AMS: Will you share a little more about the food itself, and the idea that the quality of food is integral to food justice and reshaping the local food economy?

CK: We’re part of the larger movement for food sovereignty and food justice in Chicago. And what that means to us is that we should be growing our own food, feeding ourselves and partnering with other like-minded organizations outside of Chicago. Sometimes you have to source food outside of Chicago, since it’s frigid here [through the winter months], but to the extent that we can rely on local farms, urban farms, and for us, people of color-led farms, we do. We buy from local farms and incorporate that produce into our meals. Kids can visit these farms and see where their food is grown, so food that they’re eating is tangible, and it’s local, and they can see the hands that nurtured it into being.

A big part of what we’re trying to do is not just bring food, and not just redefine the type of food you get, but rethink the food ecosystem. We’re here as a demonstration of how we can do food differently everywhere. Food is so much more important than the mass production that [our dominant systems have] created. In terms of what our meals are like, we’re trying to bring it back to familiarity and warmth, so when you look at the meal, you smile immediately, like, “I know what this is; I’m so excited.” For example, we have our fried fish—which reminds people of going to fish fries—and then we have spaghetti, and greens. These are homey meals, and they’re also so full of nutrients because the greens came from a farm like two days ago.

Part of our approach to food is balancing nutrient-dense food with food that people just love. We’re making sure that the nutrients are in there, but you don’t get nutrients if people throw the food away. You can’t do quinoa salad every day; people will be like, “What is this?” It’s not familiar and it’s not ours, necessarily, you know? Not that we won’t experiment or push the limits with people, but also the base is in the cultural familiarity that people have with their food, plus lovingly grown and harvested produce.

AMS: Has there been resistance at, for example, schools or other places that ChiFresh has looked to contract with, to changing contractors and moving to a local vendor instead of maybe a larger corporation?

CK: It’s always hard breaking into the market because there are existing vendors, so our clients right now are folks who didn’t have vendors before or were trying to do it in-house. We’re just slowly breaking into the market and demonstrating what we can do. I think the biggest thing is that you have to step your way in and demonstrate that you can do larger and larger jobs. You have to demonstrate that you can do the volume that these different institutions need.

It is hard being competitive on price just because the way that food is priced right now really doesn’t take into account the true cost of food or labor. It doesn’t take into account that every hand that touches the food should be cared for and that the food itself should be really high quality and not mass-produced. We are competitive on price generally, but there’s going to be the big players with the big factories that can mass produce at a cheaper level.

But the other side of it is we’re not trying to skim off the top for outside shareholders either. We’re not trying to make huge profits. We’re just trying to make sure our people have a living wage and that our communities have good food. There’s no extra player there that’s trying to take stuff off the top and keep it so that they can take a flight to space or whatever they’re trying to do with their time. There’s no extraction in our system, so that helps. Because the current way that food is typically priced is designed to extract from everything and then make sure there’s enough margin off the top to go to a particular owner or shareholder. It’s a hard system to work within.

AMS: What are ChiFresh Kitchen’s plans once you move into the new space and have a larger capacity?

CK: One thing that comes with our new space is a new line of business, because we’ll have a little bit of a retail space as well. We’ve never done retail before—we’ve just been doing institutional contracting—so we’ll have both, which the members are really excited about. We’re hoping to have a little marketplace that has our meals as well as some other products from local vendors, including local produce and cottage products.

Also, we are expanding operations. With our capacity right now, we can turn out a thousand meals in a day out of Hatchery, but it’s hard. There’s not a lot of space. In our new space, we’ll be able to do about 6,000 meals per day. We’re looking at long-term partnerships with local charter schools, and especially ones that serve South and West Side communities. We’re looking at relationships with churches that feed their communities. We’re looking at private schools as well, but also local nonprofits that have programming where they provide food. We’ve worked with YMCA and organizations like that before, to provide daily meals. With our new facility, we have the capacity to meet some of these larger institutional needs.

Our priority is not only getting delicious food to people—we want to redefine institutional food. We don’t want the idea of an institutional food to be fried cardboard and mystery meat. We want it to be familiar and lovingly prepared and delightful and nutritious food. We’re working to partner with institutions that share that vision, that food is more than just a requirement, or a box that we need to check, but it’s part of building community and care and love and culture with one another. Our plan is to try to just expand that mission to more and more folks, especially through the institutions that serve the daily meals that people need.

AMS: If someone wanted to create a similar organization in their local area, how would you recommend they go about getting started?

CK: One of the things that was really important about our approach is having organizers at the table from the onset, and having organizers hold us accountable to our values throughout the process. Having organizers who have deep relationships with the communities that are going to be running the organization, and are the people who it is for, and who are the leaders and drivers of the cooperative—that part’s really critical.

I would say number one: make sure either you’re really deeply connected to the communities that you’re serving, or that on the core decision-making team are people who are accountable to, and in relationship with, folks who will be owning the business.

And then number two: I think it really benefited us to replicate an existing business model that happened to flourish in another place, and to have a relationship with that organization. It’s hard starting from scratch. We were able to call up City Fresh and be like: What equipment do we need on day one? Or: How do you do compliance for these federally funded meals? Or: What kind of spreadsheet do you keep for this? Having someone to call is really critical to the success of the organization.

Those two things I think are the two main ingredients for a successful project.

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  1. LawnDart

    Beats picking out trash on a sort line in a recycling center– good for these ladies!

    A few decades ago, after Illinois redeployed Parole Agents to the field, it quickly became apparent that the recently incarcerated required services to help keep them from circumstances that could lead to reincarceration– through a new offense or violations of parole.

    With little help from the state amidst a flood of releasees from the state’s prisons, Chicago stepped up to the plate and developed its own community re-entry program, first initiated at the Pilsen IETC (Illinois Employment and Training Center)– I’m definately proud of the city for this effort, and glad to see that it continues through this day.

    The City of Chicago’s Community Re-Entry Support Centers provide a central location where any Chicago resident who has served time for a felony conviction can receive the support services needed to transition back into their communities and the workforce. Our services provide participants with training to move forward and succeed in life.

    We offer the following services:

    Education and Training
    Mentoring and support groups
    Linkage to counseling for substance use and mental health issues
    Linkage to housing assistance, emergency housing and food assistance
    Employment assistance
    Strategies for presenting criminal backgrounds to employers
    Information on sealing or expunging criminal records
    Family reunification and child-support assistance

  2. Questa Nota

    There was a lot of humane thinking packed into the article. Refreshing in this era, people with agency acting with accountability. Now, keep the pols from ruining it.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      If they want to keep the pols from ruining it, they should stay away from the charter schools and stick with churches and the Y.

    1. Carla

      Be sure to scroll all the way down on the about-us page, everybody. It includes a link to view the 40-minute Oscar-nominated film about Edwins, “Knife Skills.” I recommend it!

  3. Rod

    Thank You Ms Yves Smith(happy emoji/happy emoji/happy emoji)

    Many years ago i heard an article about PUBLIC School lunches in France–the Bordeaux Region
    It was almost unbelievable–it was unbelievable–from the Organic Garden (tended by the ‘Custodian’ and the Students) as part of Science Curriculum, to the Meal Prep and Service also done by Students and incorporated into their Curriculum as well.
    All Grades and all Students in the Middle School participated in growing/harvesting/prepping/serving/ and clean-up.
    And it was not the anomality either. And it was part of their Curriculum.
    The above Article and its aims linked to what I described could be transformative in sooooooo many ways.

    I think this will get all thinking of the synergy possible.

    Anecdote–growing up and attending a Township School we had a school cook who made it daily from scratch and every grade had to send students to a Kitchen Duty daily.
    Mom said the Quarter a Day-milk included- was worth knowing I got at least one Hot a day.

    1. Rod

      Maybe I should give props to that School Cook–Mrs Myers–who also discretely made sure those whose families needed it (it was a Township and the school had about 120students k-6) took something home.
      And not to forget our Principal who dutifully loaded the daily food waste into his pick-up truck to take home to his Hogs–closing the loop, so to speak.
      To say us kids respected all that then would be a lie–who knew then– that system should have been our better future.

      1. Heather

        I grew up in Honolulu, Hawai’i and graduated from Roosevelt HS in 1972. We had fantastic school lunches! Everything, all the bread products and desserts were all made by the lunch ladies and when I was at middle school, Kawananakoa Intermediate School, we would all go about once a month and spend the day in the cafeteria, helping out the lunch ladies. I loved my time in the cafeteria. Apparently some of the parents from the Mainland complained, said it was too much like a “plantation “, so the students helping out the lunch ladies was discontinued.
        But our food was so good, and some of the local schools were winning national awards for their school lunches at that time, St. Joseph School in Waipahu was a consistent winner. And they were so creative, putting ensaimada topping on regular sweet rolls, for instance, to make them more culturally appropriate for their many Filipino students. And this was the 1960s- 1970s! But my children, in school in the 1980s – 1990s told me the school lunches had gone downhill by then and I have no idea how my grandchildren view their school lunches. And I worked in an elementary school cafeteria for a while, best job I ever had.

        1. Carla

          Rod & Heather, I loved reading your respective comments. Thank you. When I was a kid, we walked home from school at lunchtime every day for a meal prepared by Mom (in my case usually a cup of Campbell’s soup, a sandwich and a piece of fruit). Only the very few kids whose mothers worked outside the home had to bring a brown-bag lunch and eat it in a classroom designated the lunchroom for that semester or year. The rest of us tended to feel a little sorry for them. By junior high we had to stay in school for lunch, and I always brown-bagged it. My favorite sandwich filling by then? Cream cheese mixed with sliced green pimento-stuffed olives. I think I had it every school day for 3 years.

  4. diptherio

    Camille has some very good things to say here wrt the job of consultants and developers in helping form worker co-ops. Chi-Fresh stands in stark contrast to some other projects (most of which have flopped) in which the developers did everything from designing the business to writing the operating agreement. Call it the non-profit savior complex. The job of the developer is to navigate the bureaucracy and sweet-talk the money people, not to make all the important decisions for the business.

    And her second point about working off a pre-existing, road-tested business model is also one that a lot of developers and aspiring worker owners would do well to heed. Unfortunately, we seem to have a lot of reinventing-the-wheel in worker co-op land. Some colleagues are now in the process of creating a peer-advising network to facilitate this kind of knowledge sharing.

    And speaking of knowledge sharing, this is a great example of “the cooperative advantage.” Imagine this was a traditional business, and they called up another capitalist enterprise and asked a bunch of questions about their business model. You think they would get any answers (at least without paying for them)? Good stuff.

    1. LawnDart

      Re; sweet-talking the money-people

      St. Vincent-dePaul on Webster St. in Chicago offered grant writing services/assistance to other nonprofits who lacked such expertise to pursue funding, but I don’t know if they still do.

    2. LawnDart

      Some colleagues are now in the process of creating a peer-advising network to facilitate this kind of knowledge sharing.
      And speaking of knowledge sharing, this is a great example of “the cooperative advantage.”

      This is exactly how Chicago’s “second-chance” program initially evolved, about 20 years ago, pretty much to create a “one-stop shopping experience for the customer (at first, just parolees) with regards to meeting basic needs beyond soup kitchens and night shelters– a dozen or so disparate service providers were brought around a table to exchange notes and share information.

      The “cooperative advantages” include mutual benefit and support, vs. capitalistic competition, although recipients of grant monies need to beware of strings.

      When it comes to helping those who need help, no ones got a patent on any ideas, so just take and use what can work– like you said, no need to be reinventing wheels, although fresh ideas and approaches that change with the times are welcome too.

  5. Stillfeelinthebern

    Thank you for this article, it’s a ray of hope. Can’t say enough about the work of Jennifer Gaddis from UW-Madison. I encourage all to read her books and articles. Including amazing things happening in some public school districts (Minneapolis) as she tells about in her book, “The Labor of Lunch.”

    I often console myself with the thought that many many people recognize the importance of good nutritious food. The time we spend with others preparing, sourcing and consuming is a joy we can all share. It’s close to being universal. Of course I hang with lots of foodies, still, as one local food advocate puts it, we are all “eaters.”

    I volunteer at a max security prison. One day the women talked about what they missed most, it was all food. Fresh salad, baked potato, steak…

    I have a friend who talks often about the love “baked into” good food. His go to example is mom’s cookies. He’s more spiritual that I am, but I can’t stop thinking about what he says because food gifts bring tremendous joy in my circle and here on nakedcap the garden and growing talk (plantidotes included) always makes me happy. Thank you all for that.

    Jennifer’s website:

  6. Jeff W

    You can’t do quinoa salad every day; people will be like, “What is this?” It’s not familiar and it’s not ours, necessarily, you know? Not that we won’t experiment or push the limits with people, but also the base is in the cultural familiarity that people have with their food…

    I dunno. Coming from a Jewish background, I’d be mortified—and actually pretty offended—if people assumed that what I really wanted for lunch was matzoh ball soup, a pastrami sandwich, and a slice of babka, even as a “base,” rather than, say, caldo de res, sushi, or galaktoboureko. (I would have definitely felt that way in elementary school, too—but I wasn’t exactly a typical burger-and-fries type of kid.) And, that’s aside from the idea that maybe school lunches afford an opportunity to expand the palate of the students even just a bit outside of the “familiar.”

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the urban slum-ghetto-poverty African Americans are not offended the way you would be, it shows they have a different culture than you have; and you can either understand their culture in its own terms or you can choose to fail to do so.

      1. Otis B Driftwood

        Ms. Short’s following comment is just as important:

        Not that we won’t experiment or push the limits with people, but also the base is in the cultural familiarity that people have with their food, plus lovingly grown and harvested produce.

        I was raised in the south burbs of Chicago, where the metropolis begins its transition to the rich farmland that makes up most of Illinois. My favorite school lunch were the sloppy Joe’s on Fridays, the one day a week my mother didn’t send me to school with a sandwich in a lunch box and instead gave me the 50 cents for the cost of the meal.

        This project gives hope.

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