Prison food is a national crisis. Sustainable sourcing could be a solution

". . . Nourishing incarcerated individuals . . . isn’t just about filling their stomachs"

Published January 18, 2024 5:00PM (EST)

Prison guard gives food to prisoner through metal bars (Getty Images/Evgeniy Shkolenko)
Prison guard gives food to prisoner through metal bars (Getty Images/Evgeniy Shkolenko)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


During the pandemic, many incarcerated individuals faced a harsh reality. They endured meager meals, consisting frequently of two bologna sandwiches for breakfast and supper, for months on end while prisons were on lockdown and staff sizes reduced. Small portions of poorly prepared oatmeal, sliced bread and, if fortunate, canned fruit comprised the offerings when regular food services resumed.

During my period of incarceration, I subsisted on a diet consisting mostly of unsanitary and poorly cooked trays of starches like grits and rice, dehydrated collard greens and canned meat. I never once in that time saw a fresh and nutritious meal. At one point, perhaps six or seven years ago, there seemed to be some effort to provide at least a decent portion size, and food not quite so terrible as is presently served. Over the past few years, however, the trays that slide through the chow hall window have hit the point of being unfit for human consumption.

These declines in size and quality of prison meals are not limited to Georgia: A 2020 report from the organization Impact Justice, titled “Eating Behind Bars,” identified food as “another form of daily punishment” in prison, noting that 94% of those surveyed “reported that they did not have enough food to feel full.”


A broken system

Much about food in prisons, as with institutions like hospitals and universities, has been centralized and industrialized: The system currently contracts with large private companies to provide bulk amounts of ultra-processed foods, mostly starches and dehydrated veggies. (In a 2018 survey, nearly 40% of respondents were served fresh fruit or vegetables “once in a while” or “never.”) Where there are ongoing movements for better sourcing and scratch cooking within other institutions — notably public schools — the issue has been more intractable in prisons, for reasons ranging from budget constraints to resistance to change from those who think incarcerated people don’t deserve better food.

During my period of incarceration, all of the ingredients for meals served to Georgia prisoners came either from the prison system’s state farms, which are poorly managed and poorly tended, or from companies which exist for the sole purpose of selling low-quality food goods to the prison system. The few produce items that are grown on the state’s prison farm program are usually from the worst and oldest pickings, while the best are sold on the market. And of course, prison laborers are in no way fairly compensated. One of the primary reasons for this scheme is that it’s an option equally as inexpensive as it is unnourishing, allowing the state to direct a larger swath of its budget towards other (less worthy, I would say) ends.

On top of all of this, prison dining halls create significant amounts of food waste. Data from California shows the state’s prisons generate between 0.5 and 1.2 pounds of food waste each day for every incarcerated person, not only a misuse of resources but also a contributor to methane emissions that exacerbate climate change.


Intertwining impacts

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC), unearthing a significant increase in brutality, sexual assault and suicide rates — a situation that has only gotten worse. In fact, prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous nationwide. In 2022, New York prisons saw the highest rates of assault in the history of its DOC. Last year, Texas ordered a statewide prison lockdown due to drug-related violence. These deteriorating conditions are at the center of the current movement for prison reform.

The issues of nutrition and violence aren’t totally unrelated. The “Eating Behind Bars” report found that “nutrient deficiencies contribute to a wide range of mental health and behavioral issues, including depression, aggression, and antisocial behavior.” On the other hand, studies have shown that rates of violent incidents can fall by up to 30% when nutrition is improved. In this context, some prison reform advocates see nutritional interventions as an opportunity not only to improve wellbeing but also to combat the alarming levels of violence within correctional facilities.

Advocating for better practices in procurement and food service presents an avenue to address these many interconnected issues. Emily Shelton, cofounder of Ignite Justice, an organization that advocates for humane treatment of incarcerated individuals, spent time documenting and advocating for solutions to the dire dietary problems within the Georgia DOC. She emphasizes the significance of providing nutrient-rich diets in correctional facilities and its impact on the reintegration prospects of incarcerated individuals. She also highlights the intertwining of agricultural sustainability, prisoner rehabilitation, reduced recidivism rates and their collective impact on communities and the environment.

A new approach to food could have impacts that “extend beyond the confines of the institution,” she says.


What does change look like?

In recent years, the Maine DOC has been described as an example of what a better system could be — a definite step in the right direction. Maine DOC’s sustainable food programs are designed to address the systemic issues plaguing the prison system by partnering with local farms and sustainable agriculture initiatives to source fresh, nutrient-rich produce, reducing their environmental footprint while simultaneously promoting the principles of food justice. Inmates are provided meals that not only sustain their bodies but also serve as a foundation for rehabilitation, and some believe the program is “on track to become a national model.” Collaboration with organizations such as Impact Justice has been crucial to this success.

There are many other organizations focusing on improving procurement practices, including the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project, which works to bring more fresh produce into the state’s carceral facilities by facilitating sourcing connections with small-scale and urban farms as the first step toward its ultimate goal of prison abolition. The Good Food Purchasing Program, a national initiative initially developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, provides a blueprint for institutions like prisons to move toward sourcing practices that center sustainability, nutrition and local economies; it was adopted by the correctional facilities in Alameda County, California, in 2021.

“In the journey of correctional reform, nourishing incarcerated individuals…isn’t just about filling their stomachs,” says Susan Burns, founder of the Georgia-based group They Have No Voice. “It’s about mending the broken paths of their past, nurturing their potential and providing them with the sustenance they need to rebuild their lives.”

Local sourcing, reduced food waste and a focus on nutrient-rich produce are not only sustainable practices, but also demonstrate the interdependence of individual, community and ecological health. As we consider the future of prison reform, we must keep in mind the potential of food to effect positive change in the lives of those incarcerated — and the communities many of them will one day rejoin. When we invest in sustainability and the health of those incarcerated, Burns told me, everybody benefits: “This holistic approach to correctional food systems is a two-way street.”

By C. Dreams


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Foodprint Partner Prison Sustainability