In a monthly column, Natalie Pattillo will talk to various figures involved in the connections between food and social justice in New York City.
Sharon Richardson is such an electric person that I wish this interview with her was on-camera so you, dear reader, could see the force behind her unbridled love for making food and empowering formerly incarcerated women through her company, Just Soul Catering. Richardson served 20 years in a correctional facility and started Just Soul Catering in 2015. She says that preparing food dishes like jambalaya, collard greens, and honey-glazed cornbread (with vegan options!) alongside women who are home from prison is the most powerful way to break down false stigmas and barriers to employment and housing.
Through her company, Sharon has started a culinary internship program for formerly incarcerated women, offering classes such as, Be Your Own Boss after Doing Time, Food Handlers Certificate/ Regulations and Safety, and Menu Development, Pricing, and Marketing.
In this interview with Edible Manhattan, Sharon shares how Just Soul Catering and its internship program started, where her love for cooking stems from, and what’s next for her business. Even though the Q&A is in written form, I wholeheartedly believe that Sharon’s magnetism and energy is felt and I have no doubt that you will also feel like you’d like to meet her in person and taste the delicious dishes her company lovingly makes.
How did Just Soul Catering start?
Just Soul Catering came together after I had graduated from a wonderful nonprofit called Defy Ventures. I got involved with Defy Ventures right after I got involved with The Vagina Monologues. I had done a filming with a group of women who had come together to do The Vagina Monologues and they wanted to use formerly incarcerated women and I was one of those women. I was talking to the producers and one of them said to me, “Have you ever thought of becoming an entrepreneur?” And I was like, “No, don’t you need money to become an entrepreneur?!” They told me to look up Defy Ventures, because the organization helps formerly incarcerated men and women become entrepreneurs. I got connected to somebody at Defy Ventures and I did an interview and got accepted.
Long story short, four years later now, I graduated from Defy Ventures and I have this wonderful catering company. I always express that I love food and that I love people, and when you put the two together you have this wonderful catering company that I have. My food is soul food, and we only hire formerly incarcerated women who have come home and have a strong need in telling their stories through food. Feeding people and just sharing love and having a passion and being driven through food to reach people. So that’s really what the company is about.
Tell me more about the internship program Just Soul Catering offers.
I’m also the executive director for my own nonprofit called Reentry Rocks, and I received a grant and was able to hire part-time three to four employees. Reentry Rocks and Just Soul Catering are now working side by side. And through doing that, I created a culinary entrepreneurship internship program for women. The internship program is two days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Once an intern graduates, they can get their Food Handler’s certificate through the program. You can show an interest through catering, becoming an entrepreneur in the food business, or becoming a food planner.
Through what we learn and what we teach them for four weeks is how to come away from the whole ideology of prison and thinking “that’s all I am.” Because you are actually who you are in the steps you take to move forward after your incarceration and I think that’s a huge point to instill in the women. Also, in doing this, we’re trying to break down the barriers of access to employment and housing for formerly incarcerated women.
How have you instilled a sense of community in your company and the work you all are doing?
When you think about the whole transitioning of coming home after prison doing 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 25 and 30 years, to be able to give back through cooking and feeding people and storytelling and going to these events like we do is just amazing. And we cook good! People just love our food. I get emotional thinking about the bigger picture and thinking about us women who were incarcerated and who were so ashamed of being there. We lost so much—our families, our children, who grew up. Our moms and dads died. Our uncles, our sisters, and brothers, some of them got ill. Now we’re home, and we’re like, “Okay, who are we?” And so yes, I’m the owner of Just Soul Catering, and yes, I’m the executive director of Reentry Rocks, but come work with me and I promise you I won’t make you feel like you’re not the owner. I won’t make you feel like you’re not really an employee. I will make you feel every bit of someone who is stepping out. Although it’s not your company per se, the women who work for me, they love me, and I love them. And we love what we do together.
When we were incarcerated, we were eating non-quality food for years and years. Food that could be causing cancer and illnesses. But now we get to make food and share it with love and thoughtfulness. The classes are amazing. The graduations are amazing. I just wish we could get to the point of graduating these women and then hiring them right on the spot. Giving them a chef’s jacket, a hat, and a spoon in their hand and say to them, “Let’s do this!” Formerly incarcerated people are not to be left by the wayside. They are not to be judged after they’ve done time and come home. Yes, there are people coming who are coming home and not doing the right thing. I get it! But what about all the people who are coming home and doing the right thing?! These classes are going to give them an extra leverage.
You talk about this love for cooking in such a passionate way. I’m wondering, where did that love stem from?
That love stemmed from when I was incarcerated. I served 20 to life and it was at my 18th year and my mom got sick. My mom was scheduled for a November Thanksgiving family reunion visit, but she had a stroke and became very ill. I will never forget it. The hospital called up the systems release and spoke through the chaplain’s office and said that my mom had fallen very sick and that they didn’t think she was going to make it and asked if it was possible for me to be brought out for a bedside visit. I remember going out to the bedside visit and being there with my mom and telling her how much I loved her and how much she had done for me. I told her that I was so sorry that I couldn’t be there for her to hold her hand and rub her head and feet and make her feel better like she did for me as a child growing up.
The ride back home was awful. I just thought about my mom taking her last breath and me not being there. When I got back, I was so emotionally upset, they had me searched and everything, and I got back to the unit and I couldn’t believe that my friends were there with food, desserts, and drinks. I couldn’t believe that they had stayed up and cooked. They just wanted to hear about my visit with Mommy. They knew Mommy from the visiting hall. So we cried and we ate. And we ate and we cried. That love generated from the food to my soul and my heart at a time when I most needed it. Food is a conduit to an individual’s soul during happiness, peace, sorrow, and anger. Food just does something to an individual. Now, to be on the other end of that and be in control of cooking and going to events and feeding people and telling them the story of how Just Soul came to be, like, that’s love!
I’m so sorry for your loss. That was so heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing that with me. What are your long-term goals for Just Soul Catering?
Just Soul Catering is more than just a food company. We want to do more. At some point, I want to get a food truck and my own kitchen. I really want to have steady employees. We would love to make and sell food every day and all day, but you know, it takes money to do that. I’m just trying to get there. Trying to talk and motivate people to feel my passion. I want people to feel that same passion and say, “Hey, what do you need? We’ll help you.” Maybe we can get some donors. Maybe we can do a GoFundMe page. Something to get this up and running! I just hope that one day that the world can know about us. I wish I had millions and millions of dollars. I wish I could write up a proposal and give it to someone who will say, “I believe you. Take this and do what you gotta do with it.” That’s my next step. I gotta write a letter to Oprah or Steve Harvey! Maybe Snoop and Martha will embrace this.