December 3, 2022

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Welcome to the Food

Sharon Richardson Learned to Cook in Prison. Now, She’s Bringing Those Lessons Outside

Reentry is a difficult journey… but we hold the hands of the sisters coming behind us and we create a chain that can never be broken. I thank God every day for this gift of community that was given to me. It didn’t seem like a gift when I was going through it, but now that I’m home, I give this gift away freely. I will bring women along with me.

When I was on the inside… my mom got really sick. It was during my 18th year, going into my 19th year. I had a choice to either go to her bedside and say goodbye or to the funeral. I chose to go to the bedside visit. I lived on an honor unit and the officer allowed the women to cook, so when I came back, we all sat around and we ate and we cried, and we laughed, and we ate. Just Soul Catering and Re-Entry Rocks come from that moment.

The cafeteria food inside… was so bad. That processed food is almost like part of the punishment—maybe it is. You’re given this food that could eventually give you high blood pressure, diabetes, possibly cancer. It’s horrible. But when you’re hungry, you eat. Just Soul is definitely helping to change the way formerly incarcerated women eat.

When we got food packages from the outside… we would cook and share with the people who didn’t get visits, didn’t get packages. Food is a life-changer, it’s a motivator. It’s a means of sharing, a means of giving. For incarcerated women, we used that; we didn’t know what we were doing, what it meant, and how it could be utilized in life after.

While inside, I learned how to make… chicken, fish, and curry, and different styles of foods I was already exposed to growing up. Sometimes you’re sitting around eating something really good—let’s just say mac and cheese and some good barbecue chicken—and having a day of laughter and talking about being free. Right in that moment where everyone’s so happy, the memory comes back of someone losing their child, or losing mommy while I was inside. The food’s there—it did its job—but the sadness comes over, and then the happiness comes back. It’s like yin and yang.

Sharing food feels… healing. Incarceration, domestic violence, trauma. People say, “Food? How does food have anything…” It’s everything to do with it. Even though those things are going on, you must eat, you must live. Someone may be laying on their bed who just got that 25-years-to-life. You take the food to them: “Baby, you’ve got to eat.” “I don’t feel like it.” “But you have to. It’s going to give you strength. And after you finish that, there’s more. Come in the kitchen with us, hang out. We’ll cry with you.”

We’re just a small nonprofit right now… and a small catering company, but we’re big in spirit. Once you’re a part of Re-Entry Rocks and Just Soul Catering, you are an alum forever. When we hopefully become, one day, an amazing organization that can turn into a foundation, we can fund the women who are going to become entrepreneurs. We want to be able to tell them, “You don’t have to stay under Re-Entry Rocks and Just Soul forever. Do your own thing; we got you.”

To keep doing this work we need… our own space. It would look like this amazing commercial kitchen. You could see the sign that says, “We made it.” It would have an office space where we conduct relationships with people from the outside; we don’t even have our own phone now. We would have our computer room. We’d have a lunchroom where we could all eat, separate from the kitchen, and possibly a café to invite the community in—grab three or four people off the street, introduce them to Just Soul, and say, “We’re going to teach you how to make cornbread today.”

We would have pictures on the wall… of our graduation ceremonies and the women walking out the door with a certificate and letter in their hands, starting their own businesses. We’ve got the pictures already; we just need our own wall to put them on.