Healthy Food Access, Where?

Which places do you envision “need access to nutritious food”?  Who do you believe has the right to access nutritious food? My guess is that most of the places and people you are thinking of are not in detention/correctional facilities. If not for different forms of media highlighting some of the dehumanizing prison practices committed against inmates, U.S public health discourse and food justice movement rarely examine the food conditions of people in social exile (perhaps because those experiences are not conceptualized as occurring in “public”, “free” spaces where most public health and food justice work unfolds). This is not a question of who is “more deserving” of healthy food but rather an exercise in recognizing that our society encourages us to view some people as “more human” than others. We, the “public’”, often forget the humanity of incarcerated peoples because we dwell in a society that valorizes prison and social exile as the dominant mode of ‘criminal rehabilitation’.
The incarceration system relies on the dehumanization of individuals (among many other things) to maintain control, so it is not surprising that the nature of food in prison is often bastardized and then manipulated into a form of control and punishment that prison officials use to enfeeble, depress, and incapacitate inmates. No one expects to receive a gourmet menu when they enter prison but what happens if someone requires a gluten-free, vegetarian, kosher, or pork free diet behind bars? Upon entering a punishment facility, inmates are stripped of their humanity and considerations for providing proper food for individual dietary needs are intentionally, and strategically neglected.
Food access is one of the few rights inmates have for maintaining a sense of humanity. Access to adequate, safe, and healthy food is a basic human right of inmates as it is upheld by the 8th amendment.  However, many detention/correctional facilities have vague definitions of ‘adequate’ and ‘healthy’ and often use food as an excessive, cruel, and unusual force on inmates, violating their 8th Amendment rights—rights that we all have, inmate or not. Establishing clear and safe facility food policy is an important part of safeguarding the human needs of inmates (not the incarceration system) and the integrity of our human rights.
In 2010, the American Bar Association (ABA) established a set of ABA Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners. Part 3: Conditions of Confinement includes Standard 23-3.4, an outline of expectations requiring that healthful foods be made available to inmates. Though the term ‘healthful food’ is vague as well, these standards help amplify the humanity of inmates because they affirm that access to healthy, diet-appropriate, safe food is everyone’s right, not just a “public” one.
The U.S holds the highest incarceration rate and the largest incarcerated population in the world. This means that more and more people are experiencing their interactions with food behind bars.  Many of these facilities fail to meet basic food safety requirements, in part because there is no strict oversight on food preparation practices in the prison. Private food service companies, like Aramark, are also not held accountable for their food safety practices. Poor food safety oversight has, for example, led to food poisoning of inmates in Florida and Arizona and led to the presence of pet food in the meat meals of inmates in an East Texas prison.
Though there have been and continue to be strong voices speaking up and out from the margins about the deplorable food conditions behind bars, the public health and food justice discourses can do more to amplify these perspectives.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with standardizing food safety practices. However, their food safety guidelines are not enforced behind bars.  In fact, several facilities do not have a structure of accountability that would see to it that good food safety practices are being maintained and improved. Correctional facility officials often decide to hire private food service companies like Aramark to provide food which distances them from the responsibility of adopting practices equal to those required in public food safety. These partnerships also paralyze an inmate’s ability to receive consistent dietary needs to survive because officials are unlikely to transmit those needs to the private companies delivering the food.
Fighting for freedom and justice with those behind bars includes amplifying their fight for better conditions which includes access to safe and nutritious food. Addressing this will also impact the health outcomes of soon-to-be-released inmates and inform the food decisions they make upon re-entry.