How Pizza Is Keeping Former Inmates Out of Jail

© K Martinko. K Martinko

Haven't we always said that learning how to cook is a useful life skill?

A great pizza can make people very happy, but in some cases it can even change lives, setting them on a course for lasting success. Here's a feel-good story about how one master Italian pizza maker is singlehandedly reducing the recidivism rate at a Chicago jail, using... you guessed it... pizza.

Bruno Abate was born in Milan, but now lives in Chicago, where he runs a busy pizza restaurant. He told CBS News that he felt called, eight years ago, to do something to help the prison system. Food being his specialty, that seemed a logical place to start.

Abate created 'Recipe for Change,' a program that "provides mentorship and guidance to detainees in the [Cook County] jail" by teaching knife and cooking skills. The program runs five days a week and sets high standards for behavior, commitment, and participation. From the website,

"[Inmates] are expected to memorize intricate recipes and demonstrate knowledge of kitchen safety protocols along with proper serving and table manners. Chef Bruno’s approach to culinary arts is one that instills the same discipline and appreciation of food that he himself embodies and displays in his restaurant."

The beauty of this program is that it not only makes the inmates better people – one of Recipe for Change's stated goals is to give inmates "a sense of work ethic, patience and the motivation to be a better person when they are back outside in the world" – but it equips them with practical life skills that will allow them to get a job and a pay check once they're out.

CBS News cites Horace Wilder, a 26-year-old who never held a job before going to jail on a gun charge. He told the interviewer, "This is like getting me prepared so when I go out there I can get a job. It's crazy. It's just like hustling, though you're just selling pizza and not drugs."

Perhaps most impressive is that not a single one of Abate's culinary students has returned to the jail following release, compared to the national recidivism rate of 70 percent. Sheriff Tom Dart, who sits in on all the classes, says, "The majority are people who have made mistakes who came from an area with very little opportunities. Given opportunities, they'll change their lives."

Food is a powerful tool that has the ability to change lives in so many ways. It's usually talked about in the context of physical health, but it is just as crucial for mental and emotional wellbeing. While not exactly an environmental story, this does underscore the value in learning how to cook from scratch, which is something I have written about extensively on this site. Knowing how to cook is a priceless life skill that not only ensures your body is well-nourished, but can make you money, create stability, and build community.

So, go out and cook. Feed yourself. Feed others. Teach them how to cook, and spread the food-fueled love.