How the Food Industry is Providing Second Chances to the Formerly Incarcerated | Civil Eats

How the Food Industry is Providing Second Chances to the Formerly Incarcerated

Dave’s Killer Bread, POP! Gourmet Foods, and other food companies are helping people with criminal records overcome the barriers to employment they often face.

Dave's Killer Bread provides jobs for formerly incarcerated people

Consumers recognize Dave’s Killer Bread (DKB) for its sliced bread innovations: rare ingredients like amaranth and sorghum flour, extra protein, and a USDA-organic certification.

But the decade-old, Oregon-based company does something else differently that’s not as obvious on its products’ labels. One in three of its more than 300 employees has a criminal background, and they’re now gainfully employed thanks to co-founder Dave Dahl, who spent more than 15 years in and out of prison before launching the company.

Dave’s Killer Bread is the top-selling organic bread in the country, with plans to expand, but DKB’s vice president of marketing Dan Letchinger says, “The big thing for us is grounding the company in that idea of second chances, and how do we carry that forward?”

To that end, the company created a Foundation last year, which is now at the forefront of a growing movement of companies in the food industry—including Hot Chicken Takeover, POP! Gourmet Foods, Drive Change, and Greyston Bakery—that are committed to creating opportunities for people who face overwhelming barriers to employment because they have served time in prison.

The time is ripe. Last fall, President Obama announced a package of new initiatives aimed at helping formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society, many of which focused on access to employment—from “banning the box” that requires individuals to reveal their criminal background to increasing access to tech training and jobs.

The policies are aimed at addressing one small piece of the broken criminal justice system. Every year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons in the U.S., and recent estimates have shown that about two thirds are rearrested within three years, with up to three quarters rearrested within five. Many studies have shown that employment can significantly reduce recidivism, but those with criminal records face incredible barriers to finding jobs, from employer discrimination to laws that prevent them from working in certain occupations.

A attitude of gratitude is pervasive at DKB's Milwaukie, Ore. bakery

Dave’s Killer Bread employee Ronnie Elrod experienced the barriers first-hand after spending 18 months in prison in the ’80s. “I had to check that criminal record box, and most of the time I didn’t even get an interview,” he says. “The jobs you might get are minimum-wage jobs, and it’s almost impossible to live on minimum wage. You become demoralized, discouraged. You get tired of that rat race and say, ‘Okay, I can do better elsewhere.’ Eventually, I returned to a life of crime.”

According to David Israel, the founder and CEO of POP! Gourmet Foods, based in Washington State, experiences like Elrod’s are common. “I saw a lot of guys that really wanted to change their lives, and they ran into so many roadblocks that they ended up back in jail or prison. They just throw in the towel,” he says. “They wouldn’t fall back into that routine if they had a true opportunity.”

Israel got the idea for POP!, which makes popcorn and potato chips in unique combinations like Spiced Caramel with Cashews and Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, while in prison for four years. He watched fellow inmates add things like peanut butter, caramel, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch to microwave popcorn, he says, and it stuck with him as a business idea.

“In prison, it’s not like I could do something mechanical. I couldn’t build a product. You don’t have access to computers, you can’t do something with technology,” he explains. “Our only resource to create was really with food.”

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Israel officially launched POP! in Seattle in 2011, and it’s now a multi-million-dollar company with distribution in 19 countries. From the beginning, he committed to providing opportunities for others who had spent time in prison. “Immediately, I hired my first cellmate as our fourth employee,” he says. “We started working with the Department of Corrections, and they’d send us people out of work release.” Today, about 20 percent of POP!’s staff was formerly incarcerated, and Israel is working with various organizations and government agencies on bigger projects to create comprehensive re-entry programs.

One reason the food industry may be uniquely set up to help former inmates change their lives is the many points of entry involved in both manufacturing and restaurant work. “You can start off as a dishwasher and work yourself up to a prep cook, to the sous chef, to the head chef, to the owner,” said Roy Waterman at the Second Chance Summit, an event hosted by the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation in May. The event brought together employers, employees, and activists to discuss the work being done to create opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds and look at how to encourage more employers to sign on.

Waterman, who spent the entirety of his 20s in prison, is the owner and head chef of Caribbean Soul Caterers in New York City and the director of engagement for Drive Change, an organization that teaches job skills to young people with criminal backgrounds via a food truck. Founder Jordyn Lexton’s inspiration for the organization came in part from seeing the pride and satisfaction young inmates got from preparing and serving food in a Culinary Arts class at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.

“Food is therapeutic,” Waterman says. “A lot of people in prison, they gravitate towards food because you can get lost in the dish you’re making… and the power of a shared meal is part of it.”

“It’s easy to get behind food with a mission,” agrees DKB Foundation Executive Director Genevieve Martin, but she emphasizes that the work of the foundation is to show employers that hiring the formerly incarcerated is a good business practice in any industry, via programs like the Summit and their new “Second Chance Employment Playbook,” a free video series that debunks myths and addresses employer concerns about risks.

Joe DeLoss, the founder of Columbus, Ohio-based fried chicken restaurant Hot Chicken Takeover, says that there’s risk involved in hiring any employee. At his company, which he created with a mission of providing opportunities to people affected by incarceration and poverty, more than 60 percent of employees have criminal backgrounds, but everyone is screened in the same rigorous way.

“Our primary focus is determining if a candidate has an orientation towards personal growth and a willingness to respond to coaching. We do this through a multi-step application process, including behavioral interviews, trial paid shifts in the restaurant, and coaching,” he explains. “All of our applicants go through a background search; we seek full acknowledgement of past offenses beforehand. This presents a great check on someone’s ownership of their past and eagerness to move forward.”

On the flip side of risk, DeLoss says, he’s found that workers he’s hired with criminal backgrounds have often been better, more reliable employees than their counterparts.

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Loaves of Dave's Killer Bread are hand-rolled in organic seeds and grains

“I think very fundamentally, it’s a group of people who are unfortunately afforded very few opportunities for personal development and growth,” he says. “So that fact alone generally indicates that somebody is more willing to take advantage of the opportunities they do receive.”

Elrod’s experience, for one, fits that bill. After his second stint in prison (which was 15 years long), he heard about Dave’s Killer Bread. Hired as an oven operator in the bakery, he worked his way up to director of manufacturing, his current position, in just six years.

“I like to say, ‘We have an attitude of gratitude instead of a sense of entitlement,’” he says, both of himself and the many people he works with who spent time in jail. “We’re just happy to have a job that starts out at a living wage and to be afforded the same opportunities in the company as everyone who doesn’t have a criminal background.”

Photos courtesy of Dave’s Killer Bread.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Christine
    I am so impressed with you all who reach out to help others who have done payed their debt to society and yet never really do. Background checks make it impossible for ex felons to move forward.
    To that end, my husband and I are trying to help men in the Chicagoland area. Do you have any ideas of employers who would take a chance on ex felons with drug charges? Any advice would be so appreciated.

    Thank you for all you do

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