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'Gastronomic Cruelty': Correctional Food Assailed, Eyed for Reforms

As people were planning holiday meals last month, Daniel A. Rosen opined about food within correctional facilities -- what he describes as “gastronomic cruelty” -- for the DCLine. The meals provided during feed-ups in D.C.’s lockup has been scrutinized closely within the past year, most recently in November, when a report entitled “We’re Hungry in Here,” published the results of a survey of people kept within the jail, which concluded that meals were lacking and so were sanitary practices.

Rosen, who spent a year in the D.C. lockup, advocates for the Fresh Starts Act, which would reform food service in the D.C. Department of Corrections. Though the D.C. jail pays $6.5 million a year to Aramark, Rosen writes, the results are generally unhealthy: “Typical meals at DC’s jails consist primarily of refined carbohydrates, which are known to promote poor health outcomes such as diabetes and can lead to a lifelong sentence of diet-related diseases. Excessively starchy meals are complemented by unidentifiable processed meat patties; endless unseasoned, undercooked beans; and overreliance on ultra-processed, unseasoned, soybean-based “textured vegetable protein.” 

Also, as with other correctional kitchens, inspection standards aren’t the same, which can lead to unsanitary conditions and contamination with rodents and pests. In D.C., the DOC kitchens aren’t subject to the same health regulations governing other food service providers citywide.  In fact, the CDC notes that people who are incarcerated are at increased risk for foodborne disease outbreaks and cites a study that found that people in jails and prisons “experienced six times more outbreak-associated foodborne illnesses (per 100,000 people) during 1998–2014 than people who are not incarcerated.” 

Poor correctional food has sometimes been equated as a part of the penalty that people pay for ending up behind bars, as Impact/Justice concluded in it six-part report published in 2020, Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison. Public-health experts argue that prisons can play a role in promoting health and wellbeing in their communities by helping those in custody to develop healthy eating patterns. Rosen goes even further. “It’s counterproductive to compound their sentences with dietary neglect if public safety is our goal,” he writes.



A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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