In a recent #LunchAgenda series about food in institutions like hotels, hospitals and prisons, I interviewed some guests who could speak to eating or serving the institution’s food, and others who have studied it on a macro scale. The two episodes about prison food were particularly shocking and fascinating. Roughly 2.8 million incarcerated Americans--who on the outside would present significant power as consumers--are often ignored or forgotten in our food system.
In the first of the two prison food episodes, I spoke with DC born-and-bred Halim Flowers about the lived experience of eating while incarcerated for 22 years in facilities from the east coast to the west coast; Halim shared why he’s especially worried about adolescents whose bodies and brains develop on the inside. I also heard from Kanav Kathuria about his Farm to Prison Project that is using food to change the consciousness of people in his Baltimore community toward those who are incarcerated.
Listen to the episode: Institutional Food, Episode 3: Prison Food (Nutrition Justice)
Favorite episode quotes:
“The majority of this population are under the age of 25, some under 18. We know that the part of the brain—the pre-frontal lobe that governs impulse-control, not being susceptible to negative peer influence, and decision making— is not developed for most males until mid or late 20's. These are the formative years where the brain and body is developing. If you keep them for 20 years and you're not feeding them proper nutrients for their brain to develop fully, it becomes a public safety factor because we have a recidivism problem. Seven out of ten people will within 3-5 years reoffend. We take these young human beings, we put them inside of prisons for decades, and we don't feed them properly in their formative years… Instead of getting tough on laws, what we really need to do is service this population with proper nutrition, proper education and proper rehabilitative skills so they can be contributing members, instead of destructive members of our community.”—Hailm Flowers
“I came to DC jail in ‘97 at the age of 16; I left and went to the prison system in ‘98. I came back in 2018 and the food at DC jail is far worse than when I left in the 90's. Now they don't even serve fish or chicken, now it's just soy. It looks like slop dog food. Now they do lunch meat sandwiches every day. They never could have gotten away with that in the 90's. It would have been a riot.”—Halim Flowers
Check out Halim’s media project unchainedstories.org, order one of his books (he recommends Makings of a Menace and #unchainable), and catch his steady stream of videos @halimflowers on instagram.
Read up/tune into some of Kanav’s inspirations:
Beyond the public safety and public health impacts of inadequate nutrition in correctional facilities, the food served there affects the emotions, relationships and aspirations of those on the inside. In the second episode on prison food, I learned about issues of food environment from Leslie Soble, an ethnographer with Impact Justice. The series ended on a high note in conversation with Seth Sundberg, an entrepreneur whose mission-driven nutrition bar company began during his five years in federal prison.
Listen to the episode: Institutional Food, Episode 4: Prison Food (Identity & Entrepreneurism)
Favorite Episode Quotes:
“The food is not in place for people to thrive, it’s just to survive.”— Seth Sundberg
“76% of people that are released from prison will return within the first 5 years. 89% of those people, at the time of their re-arrest, are unemployed. If we can provide employment directly, or through our company’s supply chain, and spread the word that we are folks that made a mistake, and paid a price for it, but once we are released, that should be the end of the sentence.”—Seth Sundberg
“When we take away opportunities for food choice, when and how to eat, when we take away opportunities to engage with food through cooking, when people have to scarf down their meals in a hostile environment, which is often the case in prison chow halls...people are leaving prison not only with physical after effects like dietary related diseases, but also eating related impacts on their mental health and emotional well being”--Leslie Soble
Seth: “Employment for people with criminal records. If people are involved with companies looking for talent, think about hiring from this population. Don’t discount people that have made a poor choice in the past as to who they are today.”
Find Seth’s bars (we hear the cranberry almond is particularly good) online (or at the Alcatraz gift shop)!
Leslie: Take a look at Impact Justice’s Food in Prison project, which will release findings in Fall of 2019. About 95% of those incarcerated will eventually be released. It’s in everyone’s best interest for people to walk out the prison gates in better shape than how they went in.”