The chef has thrown down the challenge. There are five teams, ten people each, that must make their own version of veggie chili. Juanita Alvarado stirs the secret ingredient into the pot for Team 1. They call themselves the SuperHots.
“Let’s let that caramelize,” she says, tapping the wooden spoon on the edge of the saucepan.
This simmering pot of fresh black beans, zucchini, and carrots is a far cry from what Alvarado ate when she was in prison. Late nights in the bunks, inmates would pool their goods from the commissary to make a prison concoction called The Spread.
“It’s a ramen noodle. It consists of pickle juice, tuna, Velveeta cheese. Sausages, hot chips, some hot sauce, pork rinds, mayonnaise,” she says.
Then they mixed it all together and cooked it – sort of.
“It’s basically getting a plastic bag and asking for hot water and smashing everything and keeping it steamed for an hour, then putting it in a tortilla,” she says. “It’s actually really tasty, but it really hurts your stomach.”
Alvarado says she gained 70 pounds eating like this in prison.
“You get out and think, 'I’m okay, I’m healthy, I’m big, I’m good,'” she says. “You don’t realize your body is really damaged inside.”
Today, Alvarado works at the Transitions Clinic in San Francisco, helping people recently released from prison manage conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Community health workers, like Alvarado, have all done time. They call on their own experiences to mentor patients through medical treatments, as well as finding a job, housing, and food.
She and 50 other community health workers from Transitions clinics across the country gathered at the San Francisco Ferry Building recently for the cooking class.
Alvarado said the approach was to teach these workers “to help people access food that’s healthy and low cost, and also to be able to learn how to cook,” she said. “And cook with a budget, so they’re not just going back to ramen noodles and spreads.”
But all this can be really hard for many former inmates in California. The state is one of 34 in the country that ban people convicted of certain drug crimes from receiving food stamps.
More than 90 percent of people recently released from prison skip meals or struggle to get enough food, in part because of the ban, according to a survey of Transitions Clinic clients in California, Texas, and Connecticut.
“We know when people don’t have access to food, they’re at risk for chronic conditions, or their chronic conditions get worse, or they’re at risk for HIV,” says Dr. Shira Shavit, director of the Transitions Clinic network.
One patient from the San Francisco clinic "had to work as a sex worker to be able to buy a Happy Meal for her children to feed them," Shavit said.
Studies show that steady access to food reduces crime and recidivism. California lawmakers decided to get rid of the food stamps ban, and the new policy will take effect next April 15.
Teaching Cooking on a Budget
That’s where Chef Hollie Greene comes in to lead the chili cook-off. She’s been teaching cooking on a budget to low income and homeless populations for years, and now through her start-up, JoyFoodly.
“When you’re at the store and you’re trying to make a decision about what to buy,” she says to the class of community health workers. “Whole chickens are about a dollar less per pound, than when you start to buy all the different parts.”
She also has gentle strategies for encouraging people to buy more fruits and vegetables, or brown rice instead of white rice. Or even quinoa.
“What is it?” asks one member of Team 5, while they sit eating their chili.
Chef Hollie nods. “Well when I was growing up I thought it was for people who hug trees. I used to call it “quin-oh-a,” she says. “Now I call it, ‘Keen-Whaaat?’” (It's a high protein grain.)
She continues making the rounds to check on each team’s final results. She dips a spoon into the bowl from Juanita Alvarado’s team, the SuperHots, which they decorated with leaves of red cabbage.
“It’s fantastic. I feel like I’m on a cruise ship,” Chef Hollie laughs. “This is the best chili I’ve ever had. I can taste the love.”
To try your hand at the veggie chili from the cooking class, follow Chef Hollie’s recipe below. Add the secret ingredient from Team SuperHots: diced carrots, caramelized in honey, with a splash of vinegar.
Rinse and drain beans and set aside.
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat until warm.
Add onion, red pepper, garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, until onions are translucent. Stir in spices and cook 1 minute.
Add tomatoes, tomato paste, water, salt and drained and rinsed beans; reduce heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until flavors are well combined.
Garnish with cilantro, scallions or other favorite toppings.
Chef Hollie’s: How to Make a Day-Two Burrito Ingredients (all are optional):
Left-over rotisserie chicken or a scrambled egg
Whole wheat flour tortillas
**Other options could be any of these items in your pantry: salsa in a jar, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, or a sautéed red bell pepper.
For any ingredients that need heating or cooking, such as leftover chili or the scrambled egg, get these ready first. If you have a microwave, you can quickly heat the burrito wrapper before filling it to soften it up. Fill the ingredients you want to use in the center of the burrito. Fold over either side, and then roll to close. Enjoy!