‘Cooking Matters’ in the Food Desert

By Jonathan Bash June 19, 2018

Exzavier looks intently at a tall can of flavored Iced Tea, examining the nutrition facts label and other minute details. He puts it back down, opting not to open it.

“Heck no. That’s no good,” he declares. “75 grams of sugar? No way – I don’t want diabetes.” The rest of the class nods in agreement.

In lieu, they all proceed to make their own “spa waters” and “Fauxitos” with fresh mint, lime and sparkling spring water – all zero calories and half the price.

Soon after, one of the other course participants asks, “Wait…there’s no sugar in this? Are you sure?” The instructor, Alexis Gutierrez, responds, “I told you it was good!”

Just six weeks before, Exzavier and his fellow classmates hadn’t heard of spa water, let alone Fauxitos.

Many of them reported that soda is cheap and easy to access at the local liquor store, as is fast food. They also mentioned that food expenses are rising, exhausting their budgets. What’s worse, they were often feeling hungry and low-energy after eating a typical meal.

In response, Rubicon Programs, an East Bay-based nonprofit that works to end poverty, enrolled them in their new “Cooking Matters” class, an extensive course offered in conjunction with 18 Reasons, another organization that aims to help low-income communities make quick, healthy, affordable, delicious meals every day.

Kimi Barnes, Rubicon’s Health Resource Manager, made the initial connection.

“Our participants were tired of hearing ‘save money, set a budget,’ without concrete information on how to lower the cost of their largest expenditure on top of rent: food,” she says. “They also made it clear that their number one health goal has always been to eat better, so we thought, ‘why not create a cooking class that shows them how to accomplish all these goals?’”

Kimi soon bumped into the folks at 18 Reasons, who already had an entire curriculum and team ready to roll. She and their leadership were both on the same page, so the two organizations agreed to partner-up.

Clara Obstfeld, a coordinator of the course, began working with Kimi to offer the class to Rubicon participants.

“There are so many challenges for people in poverty trying to navigate the food system,” Clara says. “Misconceptions around labels, marketing terms, and what truly is healthy are so common, and time is a limited resource for many of them, making it hard to make informed choices – especially on a tight budget.”

The Cooking Matters course tackles all of these problems in two distinct ways: by teaching practical cooking and shopping skills, and tying those skills to all the information a consumer needs to cook a healthy, low-cost meal.

To maximize the course’s impact, they customize each course with direction from the class and the community – all the recipes are rooted in the students’ interests and cultural preferences. In fact, many of the educators and cooking instructors are from the neighborhood, and know what works.

“In a typical class, we spend the first half on a nutrition lesson – identifying whole grains and counting calories, for example,” Clara says. “Then we have a Chef’s lesson that puts those facts into action.” Participants learn to cook using toaster ovens and portable stoves, as well as develop sous-chef skills like proper knife technique and measurement skills.

The instructors also provide special assignments to the participants, including a “$10 Challenge” in which participants are asked to buy all the ingredients necessary for a balanced meal for the whole family, all while spending no more than $10. Some contestants prepare recipes from the class, like Fresh Veggie Quesadillas or Low-Fat Chicken Alfredo. Others invent creative new combinations with their newfound culinary instincts.

One participant, Luc, is a fan of seafood and was able to beat the challenge five-fold, making 5 delicious meals at $2 each: sautéed kale, honey-garlic roasted zucchini and smoked sardines – all made in a toaster oven or on a portable burner. He soon fell down the proverbial rabbit-hole, discovering his passion for cooking. After graduation, he continued his culinary education by transferring to The Bread Project, where he learned how to bake in a commercial setting, ultimately launching a new career in baking.

Meanwhile, other participants have improved their home lives in many ways thanks to the class.

Exzavier and his wife Doris, another participant, were both enrolled in the most recent workshop series offered by Rubicon Programs. Both are working with Rubicon to strengthen their careers, build a strong economic foundation, and improve their family’s health and wellness.

“We did the class together as a family – Kimi took care of my five-year-old son Sirod while we focused on cooking – and it was a great experience,” he says. “We reconnected and discovered a new activity for us to bond over. Now, each night, everyone is excited to eat together, even my older kids. We share more at the dinner table. We talk with each other more. We congregate more.”

“We also are able to do more with less. We buy healthier and always bargain shop.”

Kimi is proud of the work Rubicon and 18 Reasons has done with the course, but she also says that there is much more work to do changing the food system.

“It’s not all about education,” she says. “People aren’t stupid. The issue is access. The choices we all make are limited by the options we have. If the only options within walking distance of your home are a liquor store and a Drive-Thru, what choice do you really have?”

She says that more equitable urban planning, incentives for grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods, and increased access to community gardens, farmer’s markets and other avenues to fresh food will all hopefully move the needle.

But until then, she, Clara, and her team will continue to chip away at the problem one family at a time.

Luc ​kily, the strategy appears to be working.

​“This class changed my life,” Exzavier explains. “After our first meal, I actually felt full. I no longer felt tired. Honestly, I felt like I could go back to work at 8 o’clock at night. I have so much more energy now – when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I’m on fire!”

Your support can help Rubicon continue to bring courses like Cooking Matters to those in need.  Donate today.

 

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Growth through Service: Rubicon Men’s Group Treats Richmond’s Moms for Mother’s Day

By Jonathan Bash May 10, 2018

By Reggie Boyer, Impact Coach

Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all, decompress, and share your thoughts in a safe place. 

This simple fact of life inspired me to work with my participants at Rubicon Programs to create our first Men’s Support Group.

Men at Rubicon have gone through—and are still going through—a lot, whether that means dealing with personal challenges, launching a career or simply raising a family.

It’s tough to get through all of that without a support system to keep your spirits up. That’s why our participants have been so interested in what this group has to offer.

 

Fostering Brotherhood

"I joined the Men’s Group to get support from, and communicate with, men who are on my level,” says Theodore, a Group participant. “Since the first day, these men have helped me restore my self-confidence, as well as regain trust in my fellow man.”

Our Men’s Group provides that crucial social support, as well as a whole host of other opportunities for growth. Each Monday evening, nearly two dozen men convene at our Richmond Headquarters to enjoy a meal, talk about their problems and plan community service projects intended to give back.

“It’s a chance to let loose away from work, family, and our day-to-day responsibilities, and share your thoughts and feelings without being judged,” says Michael, another regular participant in the Group. “And it works. As a result, our group has grown even bigger than we ever expected.”

The weekly program has provided a shift in mindset for all of these men. They’re focused on growth and moving towards change, ready to take action to make the community a better place.

Over the holiday season, the men raised money and bought supplies to help the homeless. They gathered hundreds of articles of clothing, dozens of blankets and tons of food. Then they walked the streets of Richmond handing out care packages, as well as information on how to access services like Rubicon. 

That experience was life-changing for them. It brought a great deal of satisfaction and they wanted to continue to pay it forward.

 

Celebrating Motherhood

In honor of Mother’s Day, they decided to do something special for the moms of the community who aren’t always provided the opportunity to have a day just for themselves.

The Men’s Group settled on a Mother’s Day Brunch to express gratitude to the women who not only raised their own children, but also helped nurture many others’ children.

“What’s better than to support our women and give them a good time, with great food and great service,” Theodore says.

First, we organized a raffle, raising hundreds of dollars to support the event. Then, we reached out to the amazing Menbere Aklilu, owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante. She generously offered to support the project by providing us with first-class meals on the restaurant's beautiful waterfront veranda. 

​The men then bought fresh cut flowers for each of the mothers, dressed up in their fanciest outfits, and donned Men’s Group-branded aprons to provide each of the thirty deserving mothers with impeccable service and a delicious meal of fresh salad, Chicken Marsala, roasted vegetables and a decadent dessert.

“The food was delicious,” says Yolanda, one of the lucky moms. “Each of the men were so sweet, serving us with a smile. I am so proud of them for organizing such a beautiful event, and for providing all of us with food we may never had a chance to taste!”

 

Bringing Love into Our Community

At the end of the meal, Menbere shared her amazing story with all the mothers, and the men by their side.

“I’m one of you. I know how it feels to be lonely, or homeless, or a single mother,” she said. “I, ​once a little girl from Ethiopia, where I walked barefoot and played only with the dirt and the dust, who then came to America, lived on welfare, and gradually rose up, was able to earn my American Dream.”

She continued to speak, nearly bringing each of the moms—and men—to tears.

“Now, even though many people said I couldn’t do it, I own this restaurant. And I get to give back to my community. And gather with my community. And walk side-by-side with my community.”

​“Never forget that you’re worthy. Never forget that you are loved.”

And, that message, at its core, is the message of the Men’s group: love. It’s a space that allows men to love themselves, appreciate each other and grow together. It provides an essential service that’s hard for them to find anywhere else.

Together, we have formed a brotherhood. We’ve become family. And we welcome newcomers with open arms.

Reggie Boyer is an Impact Coach at Rubicon Programs, and the founding organizer of the Rubicon Men’s Support Group. 

 

Click here to support the Men’s Group with a generous donation.

 

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One Walks 500 Miles for Change, the Other Builds Peace at Home

By Jonathan Bash October 5, 2017

Forging Connections and Fostering Wellness in East Contra Costa County

East Contra Costa County is one of the fastest growing communities in California, yet it is greatly under-resourced. According to Contra Costa Health Services, for every $8 dollars in social services available to a low-income person in West County, an East County resident has access to just $1 dollar of those services.

That’s why Rubicon Programs opened an Antioch branch in 2012. In the piece below, we hope to shine a light on poverty in Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley and Brentwood, CA, and amplify two stories of hope in the face of adversity.

 

Sieur, a young man with high hopes and a good sense of direction, has traveled twelve miles each day – by foot – for nearly a month so that he can take advantage of every resource available to him at Rubicon Programs’ office in Antioch, CA.

“I’m the type of person that beats the bus,” he says with a grin.  “It only takes an hour to walk from Pittsburg to Antioch. If you take the bus, it could take even longer. I’d rather be walking than waiting at the stop. It’s exercise after all.”

But his reasoning runs deeper.

Fostering Wellness

“The walk gives me time to think. To have peace. To learn about myself and think through my problems. It makes me feel better because I know I’m getting up and doing something positive.”

This is a skill he learned at Rubicon Programs, where mindfulness is taught as a part of its Wellness curriculum, and every participant gains a new growth mindset.

“Everyone likes to be comfortable. But you can only change when you let yourself be uncomfortable,” he says. “Rubicon taught me to smash my fixed mindset and adopt a growth mindset. Now I know things don’t have to stay the same.”

John, a participant from Pittsburg who has spent a year with Rubicon, echoes the sentiment.

“Over the last twenty years – most of which I was in and out of prison – I’ve had a closed mind,” he says. “When I got in trouble…that was life. When I landed in a gang…that was life.  When I got on drugs and became homeless…that was life.”

John never thought there was another life for him. Then Evelyn, a coach from Rubicon, changed his perspective. “Now, if a door closes, I just wait for the next one to walk through.”

He attributes much of this transformation to the people in his life, both old, new – and returning.

Forging Connections

When John hit rock-bottom, his ex-wife, mother, and daughter cut contact with him. That shook him.

“I woke up one day and realized that I had lost all the people most important to me. My mother became sick from the stress I caused her,” he says. He decided that he had to make change. “I quit drugs and dropped out of the gang that same day.”

After he was released from prison, his probation officer told him about a program that seemed to be working for his clients. “It’s funny looking back. I spent most of my time between prison sentences being homeless out on the river, two blocks away from Rubicon’s office in Antioch. I never knew that everything I needed was right around the corner.”

John went through the program and didn’t miss a day. He grew close to the other men in his Foundations Workshop series and learned networking skills from the connections component. He became good friends again with his mother, father, wife and daughter. “They saw the changes I made. My mom is always telling me how proud of me she is. She knows I’m not going back.”

John finally found peace and productivity in his relationships.

“Oddly enough, the parenting class taught me how to have real relationships with people, not just my daughter. Now I know how to talk to people. How to listen. How to stop, think or walk away before giving in to anger.”

John thrived with this new support network and transformative mindset. Soon enough, Rubicon offered him a transitional job as an Ambassador screening new participants and welcoming guests into the program.

“Out on the streets, it’s not a team game. Here, I learned to work on a team for a shared goal. It was the best thing to ever happen to me. I got to join a group of people with a like mind and a like heart – with a desire to help people.”

Inspired by his coaches’ passion, he hopes to become a drug and alcohol counselor someday. He has already enrolled in college and is working on his accreditation. In time, he would like to start a nonprofit that helps homeless teenagers and runaways. “I want to catch them before they get to the point I got to in life,” he says.

Tying Loose Ends

Both John and Sieur learned the value of connection. But that’s not all that they gained at Rubicon Antioch.

“I had headaches most of my life and didn’t know why. I only got treatment in the ER. Then, Rubicon connected me with health care and a doctor. Now, I know the headaches happen because I have hypertension. I’m able to make it better with a pill. Rubicon connected me with everything I needed.”

Sieur was able to apply for benefits he didn’t know he was eligible for, including CalFresh, the state program that helps pay for groceries.

“I thought Rubicon was just one of those programs where they help you get a job, and that’s it,” Sieur says. “But they do so much more.”

John agrees. “There’s no other place you can go to get a driver’s license, food, clothes, gas, legal assistance, help writing a resume, you name it, and for free,” he says. “This is the place to be if you want to change any – or every – aspect of your life.”

This is Rubicon’s strength. They take everything into account. They believe that it’s the only way to break poverty permanently, especially when society has constructed an environment that fosters it.

Bringing Community into Focus

“It’s how neighborhoods are designed,” John says. “If you go into a poverty-stricken neighborhood, you see a liquor store on every corner and a gun shop on every side. It’s like cities are begging for poverty to turn into crime – which then brings more poverty.”

Sieur also notices that poor regional planning and limited public transportation exasperates poverty for those who live in East Contra Costa County.

“There’s jobs here in Pittsburg and Antioch, but the good jobs are further away,” he says. “You have to drive two hours in traffic to make a good living.”

“I’ve been offered good jobs in Livermore, but I can’t get there. I don’t have a car…yet.”

Sieur has hope though. His Finance Coach has promised to help him apply for a low-interest auto loan once he lands on his feet. Then, maybe, he’ll be able to get off of them.  

“If you stay with Rubicon, you’re going to get the help you need. You just got to stick with it. You gotta make life, don’t let it make you.”

Help us break poverty by donating today.

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Trading the Dark Side for the Light Side: Mario’s Story

By Jonathan Bash August 7, 2017

Mario, a member of Rubicon Programs' July 2016 cohort, always intended to live a good life, but the things he wanted always seemed out of reach. Entering adulthood in a resource-deprived community, Mario felt that the only viable path to success came from “the dark side.”

“I got caught up dealing drugs,” he says.  He was able to make enough to pay the bills and get what he thought he wanted. “I was feeling pretty content. But I began to stagnate, physically, mentally and spiritually. And in the end, I became my own best customer.”

He spent more than a decade in and out of jail, fell behind on his child support and lost touch with his family. When he hit rock bottom, his life until then came into focus, and he thought about all the time he lost not being a productive citizen. That day, he made a decision to learn from his mistakes, grow as a person and embrace the “light side, the good side.”

His neighbor, a former Rubicon client, suggested he look into Rubicon Programs. At first he was skeptical, “what could happen in just a few weeks?” But soon, he crossed the threshold and realized that he could turn his life around, and that Rubicon’s staff would be sticking with him for the foreseeable future.

“All the workshops challenged me and helped me grow. Each day I chipped off a bit of the block of what they offered. I met with all of the coaches. Jessica stayed on me and made sure I followed through. Mr. Alexander, Pat, Reggie, Max, Dalia, Ken, Porschea, Lila, even the office staff, all were instrumental to my success. ”

Now, one year later, Mario works with LiUNA!, the laborers union in San Francisco. The job, which he secured after capitalizing on a few community connections — including one with Aboriginal Blackmen United (ABU), a local labor advocacy group — earns $30 an hour.

He now has enough to move closer to his mother and his kids, own a reliable car and save for a rainy day, while also enjoying the good things in life. He has paid off his child support, rebuilt relationships and found stability for the first time in decades. In particular, his strengthened relationship with his mother, Mary, has helped him thrive. "I couldn't have done this all without her support. She believed in me when few people did."

He’s proud of the work that he does, building public parks, sidewalks and hospitals. And he hopes to continue to grow in his career. He plans to learn how to use new types of modern equipment and develop brand new skills in his field. “I want to be a real asset to a company,” he says.

He also wants to give back. He’s joined Rubicon’s Men’s Group, where he meets every week to share his success with new participants. “I’m glad I am able to be an inspiration to others.” He tells everyone he runs into, especially if they’re down on their luck, “go over to Rubicon.”

He says that he keeps coming back because it keeps him focused, and keeps him grounded. “I’ve been able to get everything I need with Rubicon. And if they don’t have it, they know how to help me find it.”

“I’m proud that I am able to be where I am at this stage in my life. I’ve overcome some serious obstacles. It’s been a struggle. But I’ve conquered them all, thanks to Rubicon.”

Help us break poverty by donating today.

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