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Behind Bars, Eating Less

An inmate at the Iowa State Penitentiary shows his lunch tray on May 5, 2003. (AP Photo/Steve Pope)

Many of us have had to alter our grocery shopping and dining habits as the tough economy has tightened our household budgets. But at least we have some say in what we choose to cut.

As the Associated Press reported Friday, inmates in some states' prisons are feeling the impact of budget cuts where it hurts most -- in their bellies. Several prison systems report cutting back on meals: According to the AP, prisons in Georgia, where no lunch is served on weekends already, will now serve no lunch on Fridays, either.

Inmates in Alabama are allowed only one apple or orange a week; they used to get two pieces of fruit per week. Alabama inmates also used to get seven servings of milk per week; now it's just three. Officials say that remaining meals have been made bigger (some are considering offering brunch instead of breakfast on weekends to space meals out better) and that the total number of calories delivered daily will stay the same. Prisoners who are diabetic, pregnant or who have other special needs aren't subject to food cutbacks.

The AP story quotes the mother of an inmate who says she sends money to her son so he can buy additional food from the prison commissary. But she notes that not every inmate has such help.

It's not hard to imagine that hungry inmates might get antsy and more inclined toward violence toward one another and toward guards. And, as the article notes, food could become a valuable commodity over which prisoners might be inclined to fight.

I called departments of correction in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to see whether such measures had been taken in their systems. In Maryland, food service has actually been expanded recently to accommodate religious requirements. Spokesman Mark Vernarelli notes that the state's prison system emphasizes both cost-effectiveness but nutritional value in planning its menus, adding that the system grows some of the fruits and vegetables it serves.

I'm waiting to hear back from the folks in Virginia and the District and will let you know what they have to say. In the meantime, let's hear from you. Is cutting back on prison food a reasonable move in today's economic climate? Or is it pound-wise and penny foolish?

UPDATE: Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, e-mailed me this morning:

Our menu meets or exceeds the Recommended Dietary Allowances as defined by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. We have been hit hard by budget restraints in all areas of corrections. We did serve two meals on the weekend but we went back to three meals on the weekends because it was more nutritionally sound and because it did not save us any money in the long run. We have kept the same amount of milk and fruit on the menu as always. We have an Agribusiness that provides lots of fruits and vegetables from our inmate farms.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 8, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health Policy , Nutrition and Fitness  
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If the inmates get the same amount of calories every day, it shouldn't make any difference whether they are served two or three meals a day. They're in prison, not on a cruise.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | June 8, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

As the more humane and enlightened prison officials are wont to say: "you are in prison as punishment, not to be punished."

Having said that, I voted "other" in your poll because, as long as a nutritionist is making sure that the daily food intake provides adequate nutrients, two meals a day sounds pretty adequate for anyone. Furthermore, there is far more long-term health risk in *overfeeding*.

I doubt that the prison system is paring back the calories so much that its prisoners are falling below the 1,800 calories per day line, but if they were, there would still likely be a health benefit: caloric restriction (while still obtaining sufficient micronutrients) has been shown to significantly extend lifespan in lab animals and (tentatively) in humans as well.

So, I'm all for it, for health reasons. Now, if they'd just get all that salty, fatty, sugary processed food out of the prison diet (that kind of junk food might actually contribute to their behavioral problems) and go with some inexpensive but wholesome brown rice, beans, and kale, I'd be even more enthusiastically in support.

Posted by: xckq | June 8, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Prisoners should eat what they grow or can kill in trapping. If the state didn't provide "three hots and a cot," there'd be a lot less crime.

Posted by: Apostrophe | June 11, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

When I taught in a California State Prison I had lunch with "my" inmates everyday, I ate what they ate. The menu was heavy on starches . Vegetables were almost always from cans and overcooked. A sweet of some sort made desert. Once in awhile there was an apple. After lunch we were all lethargic bumpkins. Yet, the inmates stuffed themselves as much as possible (mealtime is a break even from prison). The idea of a balanced diet in prison is just that, someone else's idea of a balanced diet. Food was a tool of control. A population gorged on starches would rather sit around than make trouble. And don't be fooled, inmates are always being controlled one way or another.

Posted by: frank28 | June 12, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

they should be forced to eat each other.

Posted by: obblehit | June 13, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

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