On a recent weekday morning, 11 state prison inmates swarmed the San Antonio Food Bank’s kitchen, picking out some of the better groceries and ingredients in stock.
Leonardo De La Rosa, 25, imprisoned for an aggravated robbery when he was 16 and possession of drugs when he was 19, had a tray full of whole tilapias.
“Originally, I wanted to make asparagus-filled fish with peppercorn sauce, but they didn’t have green peppercorns, chives,” he said, dipping one of the fish in thick batter and gently dropping it head-first into a deep fryer. “So I had to think of something else.”
The Dallas native is one of about a dozen inmates escorted from the Torres Unit in Hondo before dawn Monday through Thursday to participate in the food bank’s Community Kitchen program.
The white caps and aprons they don over prison uniforms — and the gourmet breakfasts and lunches they whip up — make it hard to believe they have up to two years left to serve on their sentences.
Aside from good behavior, the dozen “trusties,” as they are called, must be top students in the six-month culinary training programs offered at various prison units, correctional officer Pernell Ross said.
“These are the valedictorians of their unit,” he said. “They have to get picked to come here.”
Watched by two correctional officers, they spend much of the morning concocting dishes like De La Rosa’s fish. But they also run the food bank’s Kids Cafe, which distributes 900 meals to agencies like the Boys & Girls Club so children from struggling families won’t go home hungry.
That’s not much of a culinary challenge — usually it means reheating Salisbury steak and green beans — but trustee Zachary Mayes of Baytown, 35, halfway through a four-year sentence for an aggravated assault, said he enjoys it.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like coming to work,” he said, catching trays in the assembly line. “But my motivation is feeding kids so they don’t get in trouble with their stomachs growling.”
Without the trainees, “we would not have the labor to be able to produce those meals,” said food bank president and CEO Eric Cooper. The Community Kitchen started in 2003 and began including inmates in 2006, after he approached Tony D’Cunha, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice‘s laundry, food and supply director.
D’Cunha is sold on it. Most employers are turned off by ex-convict applicants, he said, but hiring from this program has been “exceptional.”
“This can be a model for food banks nationwide, where the prison system gives back to the community by returning (inmates) to society as taxpaying citizens,” D’Cunha said.
A similar, six-week pilot program with Bexar County Jail inmates successfully wrapped up at Haven for Hope in December. Funding for the next round hasn’t been decided.
The Village at Incarnate Word’s dietary director Giovanni Laurel said the three graduates he hired from the Community Kitchen program to work at the retirement community “came in running.” They weren’t inmates, but he said he is open to hiring trustees with comparable skills once their criminal backgrounds are cleared.
“I’ve had lunch there and it was wonderful,” Laurel said. “It was great food that was cooked by the inmates — beautifully presented, flavorful.”
After six hours in the kitchen, trustees get to sit down and savor their own creations. That day, it was white rice with a sweet-and-sour sauce of red, yellow and green bell peppers, roasted potatoes, barbecued pork ribs and one other entrée — De La Rosa’s tilapia.
“Your piranhas are pretty good,” joked inmate James Thomas, 45, of Houston, in a compliment to De La Rosa. Thomas has been in the program longer and serves as a mentor to the others.
Already on to the orange cheesecake, De La Rosa smiled. “This is my first time cooking lunch,” he said.
“For his first time, he did great,” said Thomas, who is nearing the end of a 30-year sentence for burglary. “It’s 300 percent better than food at the unit. We go back and don’t eat.”