“It’s the same labour I did in prison, although in prison, I was working for ten cents a day.” Alvin Wilson, a 66-year-old baker, is a man of many talents. He’s spent the last seven years mixing brownie batter ingredients and packing the baked result at Greyston Bakery, the company whose brownies may be found in your favorite Ben & Jerry’s scoop, from Chocolate Fudge Brownie to Brownie Batter Core, in New York’s Westchester County. Company practices that simultaneously abolish background checks and actively recruit formerly imprisoned individuals, who are often stigmatised and discriminated against while looking for work, are known as “Ban the Box” activism.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 75 percent of returning citizens are still unemployed a year after their release, and having a criminal record reduces employment callback rates by 50 percent for white men and 65 percent for black men, according to a 2021 report by the US Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of doors are closed for formerly incarcerated people like myself,” says Mickey Wilkerson, who had to put months of effort (and patience) into getting her driver’s license approved after only three months on New York’s Rikers Island, let alone finding full-time work.
The irony in Wilkerson’s and many others’ stories is what Alvin Wilson alluded to when he mentioned his horrible paycheck while incarcerated: big-name food firms have been relying on incarcerated labour as part of their supply chain for decades. However, once released, these same people are characterized as everything from a workplace threat to an unreliable employee, all based on racist prejudices.
The rationale for open or second-chance hiring is that it allows businesses to respond to a pool of possible employees that includes Wilkerson and her peers. Kenner, Greyston’s CEO, believes that open hiring may help businesses prosper, especially in industries with razor-thin margins and one of the worst labour shortages in a century. “Our partners’ time to hire has decreased from an average of 30 days to five or seven days,” he says. “Right away, the time, money, and resources spent on rejecting candidates via background checks, résumé requirements, and interviews are repurposed to improved wages and retention.”
Greyston isn’t alone in placing a premium on human resources; a slew of food-related businesses have followed suit, from Philadelphia pizzeria Down North Pizza to Portland, Oregon grocery store mainstay Dave’s Killer Bread to Asheville’s favorite ceramics hub, East Fork. But it’s not just small businesses and local pop-ups that are hiring formerly jailed people; larger corporations like Kroger, Pepsi, and Starbucks have joined the second-chance employment trend.
“Historically, hospitality has had its doors open since there is no requirement for the usual trajectory that comes with other professional careers,” says Jordyn Lexton, founder of Drive Change, a group that trains ex-offenders for restaurant jobs. After working as an instructor on Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail complex, Lexton got the idea for Drive Change. There, Lexton witnessed the prison’s well-known abuses and often dangerous living conditions, but they also obtained access to two inside vocational programs: a barbershop and a culinary arts class.
“Despite all of the stress and grief, the class was a place where the young people were glad to be,” Lexton says. Students would learn how to produce sauces and stocks while examining the distinctions between braising, sautéing, and roasting—and would even be encouraged to try fresh pasta and pastries as part of an introductory session. The food activity, according to Lexton, reminded the inmates of their “humanity, capacity, creativity, production, teamwork, and they might feel like, “Hey, I can cook this item and share it with another person.”
Young adults returning from jail are providing extended training for the foodservice industry, with a focus on how to hire people who have been impacted by the system. Businesses must complete their Hospitality for Social Justice program before hiring any of their formerly imprisoned fellows. “Many formerly incarcerated folks spend two months training with us, then go into these restaurants and continue to be marginalised,” says Kim DiPalo, interim executive director of Drive Change.
That is something Dupree Wilson, who is now a kitchen assistant at Drive Change, can attest to. He worked in a few kitchens across New York after graduating from Drive Change’s fellow program. People wouldn’t want to tell me directly if I made a mistake, says Dupree. “It’s not like I’m going to set fire to the place—but they treated me like I was the most dangerous [guy] in the place.”
Even when he was supported, Dupree says, the racist undertones that come with being formerly incarcerated were debilitating at times. When he was working as a line chef at a prominent café in north Brooklyn, he recalls coworkers asking him about the current rap album (which he not only didn’t know about but also hadn’t mentioned). He also noticed that his bosses seemed to think they were “rescuing him,” and he attributes these behaviors to society’s unwillingness to humanise people who had served time in jail. “Watching people uncomfortable try to make me feel comfortable has been the story of my career [after prison].”
Other restaurants and food businesses are recognising that, while individuals with criminal backgrounds may require more upfront investment and supervision, they are an asset to a business in more ways than one through Drive Change’s business program. Hallie Meyer, the owner of Caffe Panna in New York City and a Drive Change Hospitality for Social Justice trainee, offers a picture of commitment to equitable hiring that has led to new opportunities for her gelateria. Meyer has cultivated a workforce whose enthusiasm is transferred to customers through osmosis. The concept is effective, and as Lexton points out, “investing in entry-level minority talent fosters a healthier atmosphere for everyone.”
Between March and June of this year, the national jail population fell by 8%, and popular perceptions of incarceration are becoming less entwined with stereotypes of “criminals.” That is to say, the country’s mass incarceration situation is changing, whether as a result of heightened cultural awareness following the murder of George Floyd, the legalisation of cannabis in many states, heightened understanding of mental health treatment alternatives, or a combination of the aforementioned. Restaurants, on the other hand, are in severe need of workers in the COVID-19 era.
The food sector, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is playing a part in informing the changing status of prisons. Restaurants and food industries can assist reduce our country’s recidivism rate simply by opening their doors and employing people (employment is one of the number-one factors when it comes to remaining out of or going back into prison). But the issue remains: Is the sector ready to shoulder this burden? From McDonald’s to Applebee’s to one of America’s fastest-growing employers, Amazon, many eateries and food e-commerce firms still conduct background checks. Even in places that hire returning citizens, there is a disparity in how they are treated on the job.
Restaurants alone are not the proper business “for sustainable, long-term support,” according to Lexton and the Drive Change team. As the next wave of second chances, they plan to expand to local farms, food organizations, and even food technology. According to DiPalo, the group is looking for jobs “that don’t have the extreme fluctuation in business and grind of work—[such as] warehouse roles, administrative roles in food businesses like God’s Love We Deliver or City Harvest, farming roles, and opportunities related to food that give fellows more options beyond the kitchen.”
And for Greyston’s Alvin Wilson, getting the word out to work release institutions in New York and elsewhere is more important than the industry itself. He’d like to be a part of the outreach: “I know I did my part if I can spread the word.”